It was a newspaper cartoon that sellers of fish are not
likely to forget. A housewife with a cart is looking at the fish counter in a supermarket. Different rows of fish are labeled “regular unleaded,” “premium unleaded” and “high octane.”
Yes, the time for mandatory fish inspection is long overdue. All these reports about contaminated shellfish and unsanitary processing of Sikh are beginning to push more people away from the fish counters. For the first time since 1981, national fish consumption declined slightly.
This summer features more reports on oyster and clam-beds being poisoned with sewage and chemical pollutants. The National Wildlife Federation released a study last month which concluded that the risk of human cancer from eating certain Great Lakes fish is very much higher than previously reported.
There is no federal fish inspection program other than a voluntary, weak one of the National Marine Fisheries Service which covers about 11 percent of the total seafood sold in the U.S. In the late Sixties, stronger meat and poultry inspection laws were passed. But the fish inspection bill was stalled and eventually dropped by Congress because of a deadlock dispute between those consumer groups that wanted continual inspection and the fish lobby which demanded only periodic inspection.
Now, however, the ominous news about fish contamination and bootlegging of shellfish from harvest areas which are banned due to pollution, is Coalescinein principle consumer and industry forces behind mandatory seafood inspection. The fish industry is concerned that people will react to the frightening news by boycotting the products. Consumers groups believe their time is ripe for action.
Pound for pound, seafood causes more immediate sicknesses than do meat or poultry. The federal Center for Disease Control estimates that for every billion pounds of seafood consumed by Americans, 171 persons succumb to food poisoning. The comparative figures for poultry is 102 and for beef and veal 57. From Louisiana to New Bedford/ Massachusetts, shellfish bootlegging is spreading and escaping the efforts of the few patrols searching for the culprits. Food and Drug Administration officials believe that 20% of the harvest of Louisiana oysters are illegal.
More is involved than squeamishness over garbage and sewage contaminated waters. Serious diseases result from such bootlegging. Last year, 60 persons in Panama City, Florida who unknowingly ate bootlegged oysters, which were sold to them in stores and tourist hotels, came down with liver disease, hepatitis A.
There are other problems. Poor refrigeration during transport and storage and abysmal sanitation in some processing plants raise warning flags. Mislabeled products and menus can make people sick. Some menus listing red snapper sell you barracuda instead. Barracuda carries the ciguatoxin plankton. Scombroid poisoning arises from some tropical fish such as tuna, bonito and mackerel, if these have not been adequately refrigerated.
In recent months, several Congressional hearings have been held about the kind of mandatory inspection legislation that could pass. Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, testified that consumer confidence is in jeopardy and the system needs improvement. Ellen Haas of Public Voice and her coalition of consumer and health groups want a law enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and paid for by taxpayers, not user fees imposed on the industry.
The fish industry agrees for selfish reasons with Haas that taxpayers should pay. Haas thinks user fees would compromise the objectivity of the federal inspection process. The estimated cost
f the program nationwide is around $100 million a year. Rep.
John Dingell (Democrat, Michigan) says “there is no way” the Congress would appropriate that much money. Isn’t it remarkable that this same Congress is about to place a $300 billion bailout burden, over the next thirty years, on the taxpayer because of the criminal behavior of the Savings and Loan leaders. That’s an average of $10 billion a year for the mess business crooks created. But no $100 million to safeguard the fisheries, from the harvest waters to your supermarket.
Dingell is probably right about his prediction that without industry user fees, there will be no inspection program. The hard-pressed Food and Drug Administration, faced with growing problems of contamination from imported and domestic food, asked President Bush for an additional $14 million and 232 more employees for next year’s budget (FY 1990). In response the White House approved a $1 million increase and no new food safety staff.
A safer fish supply will come when informed consumers demand it of their members of Congress. For more information, write to Public Voice, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20032.