How Safe is the Fish You Eat?

The fish processing ‘industry got away in the late Sixties when stronger federal health laws were passed regarding red meat and poultry products. Lively, graphic hearings were held before Senator Warren Magnuson’s Senate Commerce Committee on diseased and contaminated fish. But the result was a standstill between consumer advocates of mandatory inspection of fish plants and the industry, which wanted only periodic inspection and a generally weaker law.
Now, seventeen years and a lot of pollution in the waters later, with the consumption of fish in the American diet increasing, the government’s inspection of fish is woefully weak.

There are three problem areas. First, fish can be contaminated with heavy metals, such as mercury, cadium, and lead, from polluted water. Pesticide residues, such as Kepone, actually led to Virginia banning commercial fishing in the affected waterways a few years ago. Great Lakes fish and the shell fish harvested in coastline estuaries have on many occasions been found unfit to eat due to chemical and sewage pollution.

Second, there is the parasite hazard in fish. Some of these parasites are believed to be harmless but others can cause illness in humans, especially if they eat raw fish.

Third, sanitation hazards from improper handling and processing of fish can cause sickness. The Senate hearings in the Sixties focused prominently on this problem of dirty fish plants.

The vast bulk of all fish products are sold to you without any inspection at all. Here is the little activity your federal government (states do virtually nothing in this area) is authorized to conduct. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a unit of the Department of Commerce designed to promote the domestic marine fisheries industry, performs fish inspection services only at the request of processors or brokers.

Because certain institutional buyers of fish require federal quality grades as a condition of purchase, processors ask and pay the NMFS to inspect for wholesomeness, safety labeling and species identification. Some processors think it is good business to have a federal inspection seal to reassure their retail customers. The NMFS says about five percent of all fish processing plants are receiving voluntary inspection in whole or in part. This amounts to about 30 percent of all domestic and imported fish being inspected at one stage or another. Later uninspected stages of processing are opportunities for additional contamination.

The Department of Commerce is realistic about the modesty of NMFS’s role, noting that “unlike other food areas that fall under the watchful eye of mandatory federal inspection, the fish industry has been given scarcely a supervisory glance.”

The other federal agency that inspects fish processing facilities selling in interstate commerce is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Maybe once in two or three years FDA inspectors will visit individual plants to examine plant records, facilities and spot check products. They are not required to sample for any chemical residues, unless there is a contamination crisis in the region. If the FDA discovers a residue problem, it can order special sampling of fish products. In 1981, for example, FDA analysed 1,000 samples of fish for pesticides and heavy metals.

In 1977 FDA sampled for mercury in swordfish, for Kepone and Mirex in fish and shellfish. Two years earlier the agency tested tuna for mercury contamination. But these tests are so few and far between the nearly 3 billion pounds of fish consumed each year that even when violations are found, millions of people have long since eaten the fish before any action is taken.

The Reagan government has no interest in assuring the safety of fisheries’ products. For example, it has been sitting on a five year old proposal by the FDA to reduce the tolerance level for polychlorinated biphenals (PCBs), a water polluting industrial chemical, from 5 parts per million to 2 parts per million. Guess why? Because the industry objected to this modestly tighter health standard for your fish dinners.

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