The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a new industry-wide inspection program for fish and shellfish, the first of what is expected to be a series of steps by government and industry to improve seafood safety.
The proposal involves broad application of a quality-control method known as hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP), which supplements with sophisticated microbiological detection technique and detailed production standards the traditional method of visually examining fish.
Government and industry officials said introduction of HACCP is likely to reduce substantially the incidence of contamination and food poisoning from seafood, which has a higher probability of poisoning than beef or chicken.
But the FDA proposal, announced Friday, was criticized by some industry officials because it is voluntary, not mandatory. According to the FDA, companies could pay a fee to have production facilities monitored by the government, which would issue an official seal.
"This is an important step," said Lee Wedid, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group. "But we think it has to be viewed as a building block on the way to a mandatory seafood inspection. . . . The use of a voluntary approach only serves to penalize the progressive companies, the ones that are willing to subject themselves to more rigid requirements."
At least two bills now in Congress would mandate fish-inspection systems.
Under the FDA's proposal, the existing system of mandatory fish inspection by government regulators would continue. But companies could supplement that service, which has been widely criticized as inadequate, by enrolling in the HACCP program.
Under it, companies would be required to adopt special rules for harvesting and processing fish, based on analyses by federal and industry scientists of the greatest risks of contamination. The rules detail items from the training required for quality-control officers in fish plants to the maximum time fish can safely stay on a loading dock to the minimum cooking temperature needed to destroy microbiological contamination.
At each of the critical points identified by the regulations, participating companies are required to install some kind of monitoring system: a paper readout showing temperatures of each cooked batch, for example, or regular sampling of the quality of fish product with results logged. Government inspectors would periodically visit the facilities and review records.
This system is a significant departure from the infrequent and relatively unsophisticated methods of inspection now employed by federal agencies, which critics say cannot effectively prevent or detect cases of microbiological contamination.