Fewer than half of U.S. seafood firms are following Food and Drug Administration safety standards to ensure Americans don't get bad fish, says a scathing new report by congressional investigators.
The FDA has made progress in improving seafood safety since instituting strict new regulations in 1997, but large gaps remain, the report says.
Over half of FDA inspections of domestic seafood processors found serious violations, yet the government didn't move quickly to make those companies shape up, the investigators found.
"The potential health risks associated with these violations are significant," says the report by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.
As for imported seafood, even when FDA inspectors find serious problems at foreign seafood plants, the agency doesn't automatically stop and examine those companies' products once they arrive at U.S. ports, the report concluded.
Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who requested the investigation, plan hearings this spring to further probe FDA's oversight of seafood safety.
An Outbreak in Waiting
"I would not call an inspection system with little inspection and virtually no enforcement an inspection system. I'd call it an outbreak waiting to happen," Harkin said.
FDA food safety officials, many of whom were attending a seafood industry-sponsored meeting in Florida on how to improve safety, didn't immediately comment.
But the seafood industry disputed many of the findings, saying companies are working hard to implement the FDA rules and ensure safer products.
"There's indications that seafood is safer than ever," said Richard Gutting, president of the National Fisheries Institute, citing preliminary statistics suggesting seafood-associated disease outbreaks have dropped by half since the FDA implemented its safety rules in 1997. "We remain committed to further improving the program."
But consumer advocates said the report shows glaring problems that FDA and Congress must act to fix.
"The report confirms that FDA's food safety program gets a failing grade," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has long criticized the agency for not inspecting enough seafood companies or requiring them to actually test seafood for bacterial contamination. "Congress needs to give FDA significant new resources to remedy these problems."
In 1997, the FDA issued new seafood safety rules called HACCP, the "hazard analysis and critical control point system." Basically, every seafood plant must follow a customized plan to prove it took steps to prevent seafood contamination at every stop between the fishing boat and shipping out to consumers. Step No. 1 for processors buying tuna, for instance, is to ensure the fish were adequately chilled on the boat and didn't stay at sea too long because scombroid poisoning can occur if tuna even slightly decomposes.
The FDA estimated that the program could prevent 60,000 of the estimated 114,000 food poisonings Americans suffer from bad seafood each year.
But three years later, the GAO report found only 44 percent of seafood companies with HACCP plans met the minimal requirements, and questioned why FDA didn't force more seafood handlers — like hundreds of fishing vessels — to follow the rules, too.
Worse, GAO investigators found over half of FDA seafood plant inspections identified serious violations but the FDA delayed sending warning letters telling the companies how, and how quickly, to fix the problems.
Fewer than one-third of seafood importers that FDA inspected could document they were following the rules. Yet, even when FDA cited serious problems at those plants, the agency didn't automatically stop shipments at the U.S. border.