Federal and state programs designed to ensure the safety of seafood are inadequate and should be strengthened to reduce the risk of illness for people who eat fish and shellfish, according to a detailed new report from the National Academy of Sciences.

Partly in an effort to cut down on red meat, Americans have increased their seafood consumption by almost 60 percent in the last decade. While seafood generally deserves its healthy reputation, the report said, regulatory programs and consumer behavior have failed to respond to the increasing health risks posed by pollution and by chemical contamination of waters where fish and shellfish are caught.

"Most of the problem arises from specific contamination in particular areas, and from the disturbing habit of eating fish raw," said John Liston, emeritus professor of fisheries at the University of Washington and chairman of the panel that prepared the report for the Academy's Institute of Medicine.

"The world has changed," he added. "I think we have to recognize that our waters are just not as clean as they were 50 years ago or even 30 years ago."

Seafood caused 21 percent of all food-poisoning cases arising from meat, fish or poultry that were reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control between 1978 and 1987, according to the report. The CDC's figures greatly understate the magnitude of the problem because most cases of food poisoning from seafood produce mild, temporary symptoms that go unreported, the report said.

In addition, it concluded that the long-term impact on the health of U.S. consumers who eat fish and shellfish contaminated with industrial chemicals such as PCBs, mercury and dioxins is largely unknown.

Liston said he hopes that the 446-page report will serve as a blueprint for legislators, consumer organizations and industry groups involved in an ongoing campaign to improve government regulation of seafood.

The report concludes that many of the proposed remedies rely too much on inspection of fish and shellfish during processing -- which is unlikely to detect most kinds of contamination -- rather than on monitoring the waters where they are caught and testing for contaminants at the time of harvest.

The inspection methods used by the Department of Agriculture for meat and poultry -- smelling, feeling and looking at the product -- cannot detect the viruses, bacteria, natural toxins and man-made chemicals that pose health hazards in seafood, he added. "There isn't any toxin that I know of that reveals itself in ways you can smell and perceive."

The report also said any effort to improve seafood safety must take into account the regulatory programs of other countries, because 60 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

"We don't know what's coming in," said Liston. "There's a need to extend control beyond our national boundaries, but it's not going to be easy."

Most reported cases of illness are caused by raw shellfish -- such as oysters, clams or mussels -- which have been contaminated by viruses, bacteria or parasites found in sewage.

A second category includes illnesses caused by eating fish or shellfish containing natural

toxins that cannot be detected by appearance, smell or simple tests.

Finally, there are long-term health hazards posed by chemicals such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and pesticides, which can reach high levels in some species of fish found in contaminated waters. Potential effects include damage to the fetus and an increased cancer risk.

"This was, in some ways, the most difficult part of the report," Liston said. "The evidence is largely conjectural." The illness, "in most cases, follows the cause by many years."

Responsibility for seafood safety is currently shared among the states and three federal agencies. The National Academy of Sciences report said monitoring, inspection and enforcement should be done primarily by the states, with a new interagency federal program providing guidelines, expertise and funding.

It also:

Urged the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen its guidelines on contamination by viruses, bacteria and toxins.

Called for broader and stricter guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency on chemical contaminants.

Called for further research on long-term health hazards of industrial chemicals, and the development of better tests for disease-causing germs and toxins.

"Their recommendations are right on the money," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer group. "The risk is clear, the risk is serious and government programs are inadequate to protect the consumer."

Lee J. Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, said in a statement that the report shows that "the American public need not worry unnecessarily about the safety of the fish and seafood supply. . . . However, the report clearly defines specific areas where improvements in the regulatory systems can be made."

................... Hazard.......................Recommendations

Raw Shellfish...... Viruses............... Develop better tests.

....................Bacteria.............. Warn consumers not to

............................................... eat raw seafood.

Natural Toxins......Ciguatera poisoning... Develop better tests.

....................(reef fish)............ Stricter regulation.

....................Scombroid poisoning.... Temperature controls.

....................(bluefish, tuna, others)

Environmental.......Increased cancer risk....Reduce industrial

Chemicals (PCBs,....Damage to fetuses........pollution

dioxins, mercury)............................Restrict harvest from

.............................................polluted waters

.................Other long-term effects.....Further research.

SOURCE: National Academy of Sciences