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US Seafood Safety Inspectors Face Challenges - 2003-03-12

Seafood consumption in the United States has grown rapidly in recent years. The health benefits of eating seafood some of which contain the blood clot-inhibiting substance Omega 3 have been widely known in Asian cultures and more recently, in America. But seafood faces minimal inspection in the United States, compared to beef and chicken. Recently, a Washington panel of researchers and retailers discussed seafood safety and genetic engineering issues.

Charlotte Christin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food policy research group, says that officials monitoring seafood safety face several challenges. "Despite the growth in aquaculture in the U.S. in particular, seafood still remains largely a wild caught species," she said. "So it is subject to a wide variety of hazards arising from the harvest area. Nearly all of the other food animals we consume are domesticated, and their production conditions can be more controlled. Although they may not be, certainly it is easier to control production conditions in an animal feed lot than it is out in the wild ocean."

Because much of the seafood consumed in America comes from overseas, inspectors face special challenges, according to Ms. Christin. "Imports account for more than half the seafood consumed in the U.S., but very few food imports are inspected," said Charlotte Christin. "In 2001, the U.S. imported 4.1 billion pounds [2 billion kg] of fishery products from about 160 countries. The top five countries exporting to the U.S. are Canada, Thailand, China, Chile and Vietnam. But the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of seafood imports, inspects less than two percent of the imported food that enters our borders. Although foreign food firms are required to control the food safety hazards in their products, the FDA lacks the legal authority to go to foreign countries to conduct on-site inspections of their seafood processors. Furthermore, the FDA has no 'equivalency agreements' with foreign countries to ensure that their regulatory systems are equivalent to those of the U.S."

Several years ago, U.S. government officials began a seafood inspection program, but Charlotte Christin told the audience the program has not been carried out fully. "More than four years have passed since the FDA's Seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point [HACCP] regulations went into effect," she said. "Though the domestic industry has made some progress in this implementation, FDA data still shows that a significant number of domestic firms are not fully implementing adequate HACCP plans."

Researcher Christin says that new ways of sanitizing fish, and controlling their growing environment, have been developed. "Much media and thus, consumer attention, has focused on new technologies such as irradiation and genetically-modified fish," continued Charlotte Christin. "Any new technology has the potential to provide substantial benefits to consumers, if properly developed and regulated. However, those benefits will only be realized if consumers, the ultimate arbiters in the acceptance of new technologies, have confidence in the safety of foods produced using those new technologies."

Controlling fish habitats in so-called "fish farms" and their growth characteristics, by using genetic engineering, present new questions of seafood safety. The fears surrounding consumption of genetically- modified foods, such as corn and cattle, also extend to seafood. Roger Berkowitz, owner of the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain which has been a pioneer in setting seafood safety standards, says doubts about the safety of genetically-modified seafood continue.

"The only fish I know of that has been genetically modified has not been released yet," he said. "It is the salmon from a company outside of Boston. What it does is that it grows at a much faster rate. And it allows the [fish farmers] to achieve a better economic return because of that. In the hormone itself, at least in terms of all the testing by all the authorities, that particular hormone is not harmful in terms of consumption because it dissipates right away when it is cooked and digested. The issue is what happens if that fish and they're talking about sterilizing the fish, the eggs and whatnot- what happens if that fish gets out into the wild? No one really knows. Will it have a negative impact on the other fish out there? Will it dominate?"

The unresolved concerns of safety surrounding genetically-modified seafood exasperated Rick Moonen, an acclaimed seafood chef from New York City. "Why don't we take them into a controlled environment and find out what a genetically-modified salmon breeding with a wild salmon would produce? Is it going to produce a whale-sized salmon that is going to eat part of Manhattan? I mean, this is the drama that surrounds it it's the implication of what happens, the Frankenfood thing," said Rick Moonen. "Why don't they just do something and come up with specific results of what'd done and test it?"

Chef Moonen says restaurant officials increasingly find themselves studying food safety issues instead of just knowing how to prepare the tastiest food. "Customers come to your food establishment because they trust you to be responsible for wholesomeness of the food, safety of the food, proper preparation of the food, and last but not least - creative and doing a nice, delicious preparation," he said. "[It's] completely different than the reasons I went into this industry to begin with."

Besides the federal government's limited seafood inspection program, some independent groups and restaurateurs, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Legal Sea Foods have begun their own programs.

Charlotte Christin of CSPI describes their "Serving Safer Shellfish" campaign. "The campaign arose from our ongoing concerns with deaths and illnesses from bacteria frequently found in raw Gulf Coast shellfish," said Charlotte Christin. "Rather than sending the message to our members and consumers that they should walk away from restaurants that serve them, we have asked restaurants to join our campaign to send a signal to the market that consumers patronize restaurants that will serve them safer shellfish."

Charlotte Christin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who joined several other panelists discussing seafood safety concerns and how they impact consumers and restaurateurs.