Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Seafood Shakeup

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Seafood Shakeup

Article excerpt

A TIDAL WAVE is about to hit the seafood industry.

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration announced a groundbreaking initiative requiring all seafood processors to ensure the safety of what they sell.

The plan, known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP, pronounced Hassup), calls on the nation's 6,000 processors to adopt quality-control programs to avoid contamination where it is most likely to occur. Processors, as defined by the FDA, include all the people who handle, store, head, gut, shuck, freeze, pack, hold or label seafood. It does not include fishing boats or supermarkets.

For the seafood industry, this is a dramatic change. Until now, the federal government has had a hands-off, out-of-sight-out-of-mind relationship with the seafood industry.

Americans are increasingly turning to fish as a healthful alternative to other sources of protein, yet unlike meat and poultry, seafood is not under comprehensive and mandatory inspection for safety and wholesomeness.

The FDA has 500 inspectors assigned to the nation's 6,000 seafood plants. By contrast, the Agriculture Department has 7,400 inspectors providing continuous inspection at the nation's 6,900 meat and poultry plants.

And while a 1991 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that most seafoods available to the public are "wholesome and unlikely to cause illness," it did point out that there are "areas of risk."

Seafood consumers who are at the greatest risk are those who eat raw molluskan shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels, according to the academy.

These shell-covered creatures concentrate environmental contaminants and naturally occurring microorganisms in their systems. In fact, the FDA calculated that the risk of illness associated with raw or partly cooked shellfish is greater than for any cooked flesh food. Of the 5,980 cases of seafood illness reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1978 and 1987, some 66 percent of them were related to shellfish.

One bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus is especially virulent. A recent study by the CDC found that between 1981 and 1992, at least 72 people in Florida got sick after eating raw oysters with the bacteria, and 35 of them died.

The bulk of the rest of the illness - 28 percent - was attributed to toxins that are produced naturally by some fish. Among these are ciguatera, which occurs in some tropical fish when they eat a toxic algae in specific reefs and tropical island waters, and scombroid poisoning, which occurs when some types of fish, such as tuna, mackerel and bluefish, are not adequately refrigerated after being caught.

Between 50 and 100 cases of ciguatera are reported every year; in rare cases, paralysis and death may occur. Scombroid is usually a mild, short-term illness; there are about 100 known cases a year, but experts agree there are probably many more, unreported cases.

The number of illnesses related to seafood has remained relatively stable, despite a 23 percent increase in fish consumption between 1979 and 1989, according to the National Academy of Sciences study.

But getting an accurate picture of the annual number of seafood-related illnesses and drawing conclusions about them is quite tricky; even the CDC acknowledges that the data are poor, often because the incidents go unreported.

For one thing, many states don't even keep track of seafood illnesses. "It's hard to get a handle on it," said Robert Quick, a medical epidemiologist in the CDC's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch.

Another problem is that reporting of conditions such as ciguatera and scombroid poisoning may be skewed upward in comparison to illnesses from meat and poultry because the seafood illnesses produce such recognizable symptoms.

Nevertheless, the CDC estimates that between 30,000 and 80,000 illnesses occur from seafood each year, a small percentage of the 80 million estimated cases of disease from all foods, but far from an inconsequential number. …

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