Mandating Federal Fish Inspection

The more than twenty year struggle by consumer groups for mandatory federal fish inspection may be reaching a climax this year in Congress. Both consumer groups and the fishing industry agree that federal inspection is inevitable, but they disagree on what kind. The former want mandatory inspection of both processing plants and boats, including unannounced spot checks. While the industry wants to begin with a more lenient focus on inspecting fish processors.

What has brought the viewpoints of the two groups together is the fishing industry’s fear that the public is losing confidence in the safety of fish after hearing about shell fish contamination, illnesses and the lack of sanitation and adequate refrigeration. The pollution of the Great Lakes, streams, bays and estuaries are being connected to waves of food poisonings and the risk of cancer.

All this comes at a time when the price of fish, which requires no feeding, caring and growing, as do chicken, pigs and cattle, is soaring beyond all three alternative meats. In 1988, seafood consumption stopped its steady climb in the United States. Safety and price are the given reasons.

Twenty two years ago, we supported meat and poultry legislation through Congress to strengthen federal inspection. But the fish inspection bill was defeated. Today, the time has never been better to correct that loss and enhance consumer confidence.

But fish inspection is more than visible scrutiny. It must involve sophisticated sample testing to determine mercury, pesticide and other contaminants. These data in turn must lead to prevention of pollution in the waters. When government scientists have to warn residents not to eat Great Lakes fish more than once or twice a year, prevention has to be the major goal, not just detection.

Some seafood businesses are not waiting for George Bush and the Congress. In Boston, the Legal Seafood company started their own inspection program five years ago. The owner says that the key is knowing your fish supplier and where the fish are caught. He correctly pointed out that the shell fish areas are the most affected by sewage and chemicals.

The Chesapeake Bay pollution needs little explanation to fishermen who are finding their catches drastically reduced nor to consumers who have been sickened by contaminated oysters and other shellfish.

Growing consumption of raw fish, a la Japanese cuisine is raising new risks. Reports in California last year about parasitic worms in raw fish cost San Francisco sushi bars lost sales.While the White House and Congress fiddle, consumers need to know how to reduce their risks.

First smell the fish; any smell that emits the slightest ammoniated odor means the fish is breaking down. Cook the fish thoroughly to destroy any parasites and microbes. Ask you fish sellers about how carefully their suppliers are chosen and why others are not chosen. Stay away from raw shellfish — which cause about half of all seafood illnesses.

(To join the struggle for a strong fish inspection law now, write to Ellen Haas, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, NW, suite 522, 20036)

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