Report: Lapses in FDA Fish Safety

ByLauran Neergaard

W A S H I N G T O N, Feb. 13, 2001 -- Fewer than half of U.S. seafood firms arefollowing Food and Drug Administration safety standards to ensureAmericans don't get bad fish, says a scathing new report bycongressional investigators.

The FDA has made progress in improving seafood safety sinceinstituting strict new regulations in 1997, but large gaps remain,the report says.

Over half of FDA inspections of domestic seafood processorsfound serious violations, yet the government didn't move quickly tomake those companies shape up, the investigators found.

"The potential health risks associated with these violationsare significant," says the report by the General AccountingOffice, Congress' investigative arm.

As for imported seafood, even when FDA inspectors find seriousproblems at foreign seafood plants, the agency doesn'tautomatically stop and examine those companies' products once theyarrive at U.S. ports, the report concluded.

Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., whorequested the investigation, plan hearings this spring to furtherprobe FDA's oversight of seafood safety.

An Outbreak in Waiting

"I would not call an inspection system with little inspectionand virtually no enforcement an inspection system. I'd call it anoutbreak waiting to happen," Harkin said.

FDA food safety officials, many of whom were attending a seafoodindustry-sponsored meeting in Florida on how to improve safety,didn't immediately comment.

But the seafood industry disputed many of the findings, sayingcompanies are working hard to implement the FDA rules and ensuresafer products.

"There's indications that seafood is safer than ever," saidRichard Gutting, president of the National Fisheries Institute,citing preliminary statistics suggesting seafood-associated diseaseoutbreaks have dropped by half since the FDA implemented its safetyrules in 1997. "We remain committed to further improving theprogram."

But consumer advocates said the report shows glaring problemsthat FDA and Congress must act to fix.

"The report confirms that FDA's food safety program gets afailing grade," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center forScience in the Public Interest, who has long criticized the agencyfor not inspecting enough seafood companies or requiring them toactually test seafood for bacterial contamination. "Congress needsto 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 toprove it took steps to prevent seafood contamination at every stopbetween the fishing boat and shipping out to consumers. Step No. 1for processors buying tuna, for instance, is to ensure the fishwere adequately chilled on the boat and didn't stay at sea too longbecause scombroid poisoning can occur if tuna even slightlydecomposes.

The FDA estimated that the program could prevent 60,000 of theestimated 114,000 food poisonings Americans suffer from bad seafoodeach year.

But three years later, the GAO report found only 44 percent ofseafood companies with HACCP plans met the minimal requirements,and questioned why FDA didn't force more seafood handlers — likehundreds of fishing vessels — to follow the rules, too.

Worse, GAO investigators found over half of FDA seafood plantinspections identified serious violations but the FDA delayedsending warning letters telling the companies how, and how quickly,to fix the problems.

Fewer than one-third of seafood importers that FDA inspectedcould document they were following the rules. Yet, even when FDAcited serious problems at those plants, the agency didn'tautomatically stop shipments at the U.S. border.

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