FDA EXCLUDES RETAILERS FROM SEAFOOD INSPECTION

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Food and Drug Administration has decided to exclude the retail food industry from a proposed mandatory seafood inspection program, choosing instead to cover just processors, packers and warehouse operations.While exempting retailers, agency officials said they're not ignoring the importance of supermarkets in ensuring consumers buy uncontaminated seafood, but would rather let

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Food and Drug Administration has decided to exclude the retail food industry from a proposed mandatory seafood inspection program, choosing instead to cover just processors, packers and warehouse operations.

While exempting retailers, agency officials said they're not ignoring the importance of supermarkets in ensuring consumers buy uncontaminated seafood, but would rather let state and local governments continue in their role as the principal overseers of seafood safety at retail.

As a tool for seafood enforcement, FDA has asked state and local governments to adopt the newly revised National Food Protection Code and its extensive guidelines on seafood and food preparation. (See related story on Page 1.)

The National Food Protection Code was released Jan. 21 in tandem with the new seafood inspection regulations as part of a federal initiative to improve seafood safety through the whole harvesting to retail production process -- from the water to the table.

"We are building in safety at every stage of the seafood and retail food production process," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala at a news conference unveiling the new initiatives. "Whether we eat out or eat at home, we shouldn't have to wonder if the food has been transported correctly, properly processed, shipped, handled and stored by the retailer under the right temperature."

The inspection program follows Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point protocol, or HACCP, which sets up preventive controls at various checkpoints in the harvesting and processing

system. An HACCP program is considered the state-of-the-art approach to food safety.

FDA's proposed seafood HACCP lays out stringent testing and record-keeping standards to ensure that seafood has not been exposed to unacceptable levels of pollutants and that it's been properly chilled and handled. Records, which would be reviewed by federal inspectors, also would have to document that cross-contamination hasn't occurred between cooked and raw seafood. Although in proposing the seafood HACCP, FDA asked for comment regarding whether such a system "or alternative regulatory approaches" should be extended to the retail industry, the agency also acknowledged it wouldn't be up to such a regulatory task. "The number of retail establishments in this country -- literally in the hundreds of thousands -- would totally overwhelm any rational federal inspection system," FDA said in its proposal, which will be open for comment for 90 days after it's published in the Federal Register. The new rules would take effect a year later.

"States are strongly encouraged, however, to consider how the principles in these regulations could be applied to seafood at retail and to shift to HACCP-type inspection systems as appropriate," the proposal states.

"Improper handling of seafood and other problems at retail have been documented in recent years. [The National Academy of Sciences] has concluded that a significant number of reported acute health problems were likely linked to handling and preparation practices in food-service establishments," the proposal states.

While FDA is proposing to exclude retailers from its seafood HACCP, the agency said that it's still deciding whether to require supermarkets to label seafood with safe-handling and cooking messages. A similar labeling rule is in the works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for raw meat and poultry. In addition, the agency asked for comments on whether it should require retailers to provide point-of-purchase information for raw molluscan shellfish. Consumer groups have been pressing FDA to require a warning label be placed on such seafood alerting consumers with certain health conditions. During the last few years, a handful of progressive retailers have moved toward adopting seafood HACCPs as part of food safety programs, which are monitored by state and local governments. A seafood HACCP protocol developed in the last two years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been highly touted in the industry. The program allows retailers that meet its standards to use NOAA certification in their marketing. Thus far, Harry's Farmers Market in Atlanta has been the only supermarket to be certified, although NOAA officials said that six more chains are about to join the club.

The new FDA seafood proposal complements the NOAA retail effort, according to Rich Cano, chief of the agency's Inspection Services Division. Those industries that would be affected by FDA's seafood proposal reacted positively. "An HACCP-based inspection system for seafood combined with the revised model food code will cover seafood products as they move through the entire process from the sea to the point of purchase by consumers," said Lee J. Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, Arlington, Va. "It is important to note that these new regulations will also apply to imported seafood, which constitutes approximately 50% of the seafood consumed in this country."

A spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute here said association officials will be reviewing the regulations and will comment on them at a later date. Strengthening seafood safety regulations has been a priority at FDA since a 1991 National Academy of Sciences report said the nation's seafood supply and distribution network had the potential for creating health hazards. Consumer groups following the seafood issue, which have banded together as the Safe Food Coalition, said the new FDA plan falls short of ensuring a fail-safe seafood supply. The coalition is also critical that retailers aren't included in a mandatory federal HACCP system.