FOR YEARS the government has had serious inspection programs for meat and poultry, but not for fish. That is true even though the public has been told in recent years both to eat more fish and to watch out lest the fish has come from increasingly contaminated waters. The low-fat protein is good for you; the contaminants are not. Nor is the problem a wisp of someone's imagination.
Americans still eat much more meat and poultry than they do fish, but in relative terms the risk of food poisoning from fish seems to be much greater -- 25 times greater than for beef, for example. The Centers for Disease Control have estimated that one in 250 people who eat raw shellfish will become ill. The Food and Drug Administration regularly finds pesticide buildups in seafood that exceed federal standards.
Congress is now considering an answer to this shortcoming: a fish inspection program that would not provide as constant a federal presence as in meat and poultry plants but would nonetheless be a great advance over the industry's present voluntary system, said to cover only 12 percent of U.S. seafood.
Turf has been a problem in setting up a government program: Which of several possible agencies would run it? A bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee would solve the problem by giving them all a role. The National Academy of Sciences would set an agenda -- a list of unsafe substances to be filtered out. The FDA would then set tolerances for each; the Agriculture Department would become the policeman, making random inspections of processing plants in the process. The Commerce Department would retain the power to close contaminated fishing grounds.
That's a bit disjointed, but not a bad use of existing expertise, and maybe the best contraption that can be fashioned. Still, not everyone likes all aspects of it. The administration, for example, has urged among other points that the relatively small cost of the program be met through user fees rather than out of general revenues. But the committee bill is expected to reach the Senate floor this summer, perhaps as part of the farm bill, and some form is thought likely to pass. The House is less far along; a bill has emerged from only one of three committees with jurisdiction. But this is hardly onerous legislation, and it is well within the government's responsibilities. The House should join the Senate in seeing to its passage.