Marine Fisheries Services Levies $50,000 Fine Against Mussels Shipper

Times Staff Writer

A Granada Hills man was fined $50,000 for illegally harvesting and shipping contaminated shellfish, the National Marine Fisheries Services announced last week. The penalty is the highest ever levied by the agency in California.

The action resulted from a September, 1985, investigation that documented five instances in which the probe's target, Mario Simone, allegedly collected mussels from unclean Southern California waters and then shipped the mollusks to Chicago-area restaurants.

Simone said he would appeal the fine, but would not otherwise discuss the case.

The action is part of an intensified effort by the fisheries services' Los Angeles regional office to monitor the safety of shellfish supplies, according to Ray Sautter, senior resident agent.

The agency, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department, charged that Simone is neither a certified shipper nor authorized to harvest shellfish for human consumption.

"He harvested the mussels out of (boat) marinas where it is easy to get to the pilings and floating docks (where the shellfish cling). And the marinas in Southern California are not noted for their water quality," Sautter said.

The contamination was originally discovered by Chicago-area health authorities during routine laboratory testing. The shipments' fecal coliform counts (measurements of sewerage-like bacteria) were 500% to 600% higher than the accepted levels. Illinois officials did not link any illness to the contaminated mussels, but high fecal coliform counts in food can result in stomach pains, nausea and diarrhea.

The illegal harvests also allegedly occurred during the summer when California places a quarantine on any such activity along the state's coastal waters. The prohibition is prompted by the seasonal appearance of dinoflagellates, highly toxic one-cell organisms that are eaten by the mussels. Human consumption of this toxin, via the mollusk, can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, which impairs breathing and can be fatal. The national fisheries investigation, however, did not address such quarantine violations because laboratory tests failed to detect any toxins.

Simone has 30 days in which to either pay the fine or appeal the penalty to a Commerce Department administrative law judge.

A Shellfish Caution--The fisheries services' Sautter said that illegal mussel harvesting may be continuing in Southern California. It is masked, to some degree, because the state does sanction the collection of coastal mussels, but only for use as fish bait. Occasionally, this shellfish is diverted to commercial markets.

"People harvest mussels with bait permits," he said. "But once they leave the marina, it's a question of what happens to these shellfish. Do they go to the bait industry or elsewhere?"

In order to avoid any health problems, consumers should purchase only from reputable dealers or fish markets, Sautter said. Any such outlets must have on hand certification that their mussel supplies are safe.

"Ask (vendors) questions about an item's quality and ask where the product came from," he said. "I would stay away from things laying on the floor in burlap bags. . . . And I would not buy from a guy selling shellfish from the back of his truck."

Sweetener Under Scrutiny--Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) has scheduled congressional hearings next month to review the safety of aspartame, an artificial sugar trademarked as NutraSweet.

Questions about the sweetener continue to linger despite the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's continued unequivocal support for the compound. The agency has received hundreds of reports from consumers who claim to have experienced negative reactions to aspartame-sweetened foods. The illnesses have included headaches, neurological disorders and seizures.

Metzenbaum has been a persistent critic of the FDA's initial scrutiny of aspartame, claiming that the agency based its approval, in part, on faulty research. The senator has introduced legislation that would require additional health-related studies and warning labels on products that contain the sweetener.

However, his call for hearings followed the recent release of a General Accounting Office report on the safety question, according to an article in Nutrition Week, a newsletter published by the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington.

During its two-year study, the GAO, an arm of Congress, found that a significant number of the scientists interviewed expressed some degree of concern about the chemical's safety. A number of those questioned also support warning labels.

The GAO did state, nonetheless, that the FDA followed the proper approval process in reviewing the substance.

The hearings are a setback for G.D. Searle & Co., manufacturers of aspartame. The firm had hoped to finally lay to rest the public's doubts about the sugar substitute when it funded several research studies to determine whether the sweetener may be linked to seizures or headaches. Those studies are not yet complete, but preliminary reports discount any connection between aspartame and adverse reactions.

Latest Warning Label--The Environmental Protection Agency's decision last week to require California growers to use stem tags or produce counter signs to alert consumers to the presence of sulfites on table grapes is the first time fresh fruit or vegetables will carry what amounts to a warning label.

The disclosures will be required for any grape shipments found to contain in excess of 10 parts per million of the preservative. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that all processed foods containing more than 10 ppm of sulfites disclose the chemical's presence on labels. However, regulatory jurisdiction of table grapes fell to the EPA because the compound is applied as an agricultural fungicide and, as such, falls into the environmental agency's realm.)

Consumers should get their first look at the sulfite warnings in early September. The action, published this week in the Federal Register, will force the state's table grape industry to spend more than $9 million to comply, according to a trade group estimate.

Sulfur dioxide is used to maintain the texture and color of grapes during storage while inhibiting mold. Health officials believe that such preservatives can cause severe allergic reaction in asthmatics and others sensitive to the substance. More than 1 million Americans are thought to be susceptible to sulfiting agents.

The state's growers, based primarily in the San Joaquin Valley, have opted to place stem tags on the fruit because of the supermarket industry's resistance to posting warning placards in the produce counter, said Bruce Obbink, California Table Grape Commission president.

The chemical's presence on grapes is negligible and does not pose a health threat, Obbink said. Even so, his group will meet the requirements of the EPA's ruling.

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