All We’re Doing Is Rearranging the Deck Chairs on a Seafood Titanic

Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1994: p. B7

Food safety: The FDA’s new rules don’t address the real threat – lethal toxins in fish from contaminated waters. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it will promulgate new rules to ensure that seafood is free of bacterial and viral contaminants that cause food poisoning. After years of foot-dragging and congressional criticism, the move has been welcomed by consumer groups.

But the announcement amounts to little more than a public-relations gambit to boost seafood sales, which have declined about 8% since 1987 due largely to public concern over safety. Many of the most critical regulation have been in effect for years under the National Shellfish Sanitation Program carried out by the states and supervised by the FDA. Others have already been widely adopted by industry.

The tough steps necessary to make seafood safe have yet to be taken.

An estimated 60,000 people suffer seafood poisoning annually, mostly from consumption of raw shellfish. As for the FDA’s touted crusade to save the public from alleged bacterial and viral hazards in the rest of the seafood supply, that is tilting at windmills. These contaminants are often found on fin fish, but fin fish are usually cooked. A 1991 National Academy of Sciences seafood-safety committee concluded that seafood filets and steaks almost never cause bacterial or viral poisoning.

The academy committee, however, emphasized that seafood poses serious chronic threats to our health: cancer and birth defects resulting from contamination with persistent environmental toxins such as methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin and DDT. The bulk of this risk stems from fish harvested from the Great Lakes, Inland waterways and coastal bay and estuaries. In contrast with the very few who eat raw shellfish, this risk threatens almost the entire U.S. population.

Studies in the Great Lakes region have demonstrated that babies born to women who regularly eat PCB-contaminated fish have smaller birth weight and head circumference and impaired neurological development. Furthermore, the academy conservatively concluded that about 75 of every 1 million consumers are at risk for cancer. The usual federal standard for safety is 1 in 1 million. People who subsist on fish and who fish in polluted waters, including many Native Americans, are at even higher risk.

Totally ignored by the FDA, these delayed hazards could be substantially reduced through regulation.

  • Labeling and public education. Explicit labeling would alert consumers to cancer and birth-defect-causing contaminants.
  • Monitoring. The FDA monitors only a few fish, and these for only a few carcinogenic and reproductive contaminants. Monitoring must be sharply expanded to include comprehensive analysis for industrial pollutant such as pesticides, dioxin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methylmercury and radioactive contaminants.
  • Strengthening environmental discharge regulations. Fish from even Alaska are now contaminated with dioxin, a potent carcinogen, and other carcinogenic and reproductive toxins. In other coastal regions and inland waterways, fish are contaminated with pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides such as alachlor and atrazine. Tough regulations restricting agricultural and industrial discharges must be promulgated.
  • Restricting harvest in polluted areas. These hazards are posed by harvesting fish from inland waterways including the Great Lakes and specific coastal regions such as greater Boston harbor and Santa Monica Bay. A 50% reduction in national exposure to carcinogens in fish could be achieved by restricting harvesting from only 5% of the most contaminated sites.
  • Tightening allowable levels for methylmercury. FDA risk assessments for mercury-related birth defects are based on shaky science. While Canada rejects all fish with methylmer-cury levels over 0.5 parts per million, U.S. guidelines allow twice this amount. Further-more, about half of all swordfish -- a major dietary source of methylmercury--sold in supermarkets exceeds even lenient U.S. guidelines, and, if consumed too frequently, may pose reproductive hazards.
  • Regulating farmed fish. The nation’s burgeoning aquaculture industry has not been adequately regulated. Aquaculture feed should be certified to be free from carcinogenic pesticides, antibiotics and other contaminants.

Consumer surveys have consistently, found that the public is intensely concerned about cancer hazards in the food supply. By following these recommendations, the FDA can at last fulfill its obligation to ensure that our seafood supply is safe.