SAFETY MANDATE EXPECTED TO RAISE CONSUMER TRUST

WASHINGTON -- The Food & Drug Administration's new seafood safety mandates could have a positive impact on consumer confidence in the fish they buy, according to a spot check of retailers contacted by SN after the Jan. 21 release of the program here.The new plan calls for seafood processors, packers and warehouses to develop a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program for their operations. Putting

WASHINGTON -- The Food & Drug Administration's new seafood safety mandates could have a positive impact on consumer confidence in the fish they buy, according to a spot check of retailers contacted by SN after the Jan. 21 release of the program here.

The new plan calls for seafood processors, packers and warehouses to develop a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program for their operations. Putting such a program in place may add costs to the seafood business, which could have a negative effect on prices, retailers said.

All those interviewed last week said they are waiting to receive more details of FDA's program, which will be published in the Federal Register and will have a 90-day public comment period.

Retailers surveyed all said their seafood sales had been either stable or very good this past year. However, the nation's per capita consumption has slipped 8% since its peak of 16.2 pounds in 1987, according to the National Fisheries Institute.

News of FDA's program may help the image of the industry, which has been tarnished in recent years by negative media reports of contamination and mishandling, according to some retailers surveyed.

"It is absolutely a positive step for the seafood industry and will make consumers feel more at ease when steps of the program are implemented," said Rich Catanzaro, director of seafood merchandising, Mayfair Super Markets, Elizabeth, N.J.

"Right now it is at the beginning stages and it is not directly affecting retailers [yet]," said Catanzaro. "I think it will be a positive step for the entire food industry, not just seafood."

A seafood buyer for a large Midwestern chain, who asked not to be identified, said while the program will probably be a boost for the seafood industry, it could make the product more costly.

"I think there has been a lot of bad [public relations] out there for seafood. Because anytime there is anything put out there, it is directed to the worst possible thing," said the buyer. News media "never look at the good guys, they only look at the bad guys and it has hurt consumers' opinions of seafood."

The buyer said that as a result of the new program he thinks the cost of goods will rise, but so will the quality. The added costs will come from the need to hire more people to do inspections, said the buyer.

Lee Du Bois, supervisor of meat and seafood for Keith Uddenberg Inc., Gig Harbor, Wash., disagrees with the widespread perception that consumers are afraid of seafood. "I don't think consumers are still wary," he said.

And Bill Vitulli, vice president of government and community relations for A&P, Montvale, N.J., said seafood safety "is not a new issue with us at all.

"We have always been very cognizant of freshness controls," he said. "In order to maintain your customers you have to have it fresh and wholesome."

The new government initiative will serve as a good reminder of the importance of proper seafood handling, Vitulli said. "There is nothing wrong with reminding the food industry about freshness and safety, and all related subjects can be re-emphasized periodically."

Jonah Shore, vice president and buyer of meat and seafood for Farm Fresh Supermarkets, Baltimore, said the new federal program is a "good move" by the government, but thinks its success will depend on how closely it is monitored.

"In theory it sounds excellent, but whether it is practical or not, I don't know," said Shore. "The most important thing is follow-up. And, will they have enough inspectors to do the job, and then, naturally, the cost is an issue."