Maryland state seafood specialists believe proposed federal legislation bringing fish inspections up to the same standards used for meat and poultry amounts to overkill, but some Chesapeake Bay retailers welcome the change.
Seafood is the only major "flesh" food not subject to comprehensive federal inspection, and legislation approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee last month would end two decades of wrangling over the issue.
Now, only a fraction of the 4 billion pounds of seafood consumed annually by Americans is inspected through a voluntary program. By comparison, the government posts full-time inspectors at livestock and poultry slaughterhouses.
Some seafood outlets, such as Captain's Ketch in Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore, welcome the proposed changes, saying a comprehensive federal fish inspection program can help ease the public's concern about food poisoning and contamination in the bay region.
Manager Vince Grasso said the legislation also would crack down on bootleggers.
"Random inspections would be great for me," Grasso said, noting the seal of approval would promote greater public trust.
The federal legislation, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and approved by the committee he heads, would give the Agriculture Department responsibility for carrying out inspections and would charge the Food and Drug Administration with setting tolerance levels for contaminants.
At present, the FDA and the Commerce Department are involved in regulating fish inspections.
Coastal states and those bordering the Chesapeake Bay have a stake in the outcome of the bill.
In Maryland, much of what the federal inspection program would mandate is already done, said William Sieling, director of seafood marketing for the state Department of Agriculture. Various state agencies inspect the processing plants, waters and product, he said.
"Maryland would like to see an inspection program that basically beefs up the existing state program and not add another level of federal bureaucracy," said Sieling.
"Let the federal goverment beef up those areas for the states to use to help their already-in-place programs."
Senate Agriculture Committee staff members who have worked on the measure say there will be increased funding to states, and that states can actually carry out the work of the federal government as deputized agents. They argue the importance of the legislation lies primarily in the shift of responsibility to the much larger and better-staffed federal agriculture agency.