Study Looks at Federal Seafood Inspection

Times Staff Writer

The seafood industry is undergoing federal scrutiny as health officials review whether stricter controls should be placed on fish processing.

A congressionally mandated survey is determining the need, if any, for an increased government role in monitoring the safety of seafood supplies.

The project, already under way, will involve researchers at both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The two groups will determine if an inspection program, similar to those in place for poultry, red meat or canned foods, should be adopted for fish.

$5 Million Program

The effort, at a cost of $5 million, was launched after passage of legislation sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska). As part of the review, the academy will report on health threats posed by pathogens, other organisms and environmental contaminants present in fish. Meanwhile, the fisheries service is studying handling and processing to find ways to reduce hazardous practices. Upon completion, the results and recommendations will be forwarded to Congress for consideration.

The regulatory activity resulted after a coalition of consumer groups repeatedly petitioned legislators and government agencies to increase federal oversight of seafood. The review also has the support of the National Fisheries Institute Inc., a trade group.

Only a fraction of the fish that comes to market is subject to continuous, on-site government inspection. On the other hand, every chicken and beef carcass entering the domestic food supply is viewed for defects by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees.

While acknowledging that changes are probably necessary in the present system, a top official for a fisheries trade group was doubtful that Congress, or the next Administration, would be willing to fund any seafood inspection system that would be comparable to those for meat.

"There are weaknesses in some areas of the (seafood) system that will require additional monitoring and enforcement activity," said Lee J. Weddig, executive vice president of Fisheries Institute Inc., in Washington. "But as for federal inspectors in every plant and dock, I don't think that's necessary, or warranted, considering the ultimate cost to taxpayers."

Weddig said his membership is split on the issue, but that most favor some revamping of the government's seafood role based on the current studies' final recommendations.

However, he emphasized that companies that now handle seafood are subject to numerous federal and state regulations even though every fish, bivalve or crustacean is not inspected. Among such guidelines is the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which establishes standards for much of the food processed in this country.

Weddig and his organization welcome the current, extensive review, even though the National Academy of Sciences' findings may actually intensify concerns about contaminated seafood supplies. Just such a scenario occurred early last year when the science panel reviewed the poultry industry's practices. At the time, the academy estimated that 35-37% of all uncooked chicken contains salmonella, a potentially fatal bacteria. News accounts of the study generated a great deal of negative publicity for the poultry producers and hurt sales.

Weddig said it wasn't likely that the review of seafood would arrive at a similar conclusion.

"Seafood is not risk-free, nor are any foods. It's just the degree of risks involved," he said, indicating that the problems associated with poultry, beef and pork were different than those associated with seafood.

Certainly, those fish caught far offshore are likely free of harmful chemicals. But one persistent criticism of the domestic industry is that fish continue to be harvested from waters contaminated as a result of industrial pollution or sewage dumping.

Clean Environments Stressed

"We do need a system with greater emphasis on clean environments and with greater restriction on where fish are harvested," he said.

Another potential image problem for the domestic industry is the status of imported fishery products, more than two-thirds of the total consumed in this country. Imported foods have been singled out by Food and Drug Administration personnel as an increasing source of food-borne bacteria. Surveillance of foreign shipments is being intensified.

Weddig endorsed such efforts, stating, "The international supplies of seafood? Well, some are good and some are not so good."

Lawry's Turns 50--One of the most familiar names in the Southern California food scene is celebrating a 50th anniversary this year. At a luncheon last week, Lawry's Foods Inc. & Lawry's Restaurants Inc. announced a series of events to commemorate half a century in both the dining and food product business.

In June, 1938, the Frank family opened its first restaurant, Lawry's The Prime Rib on La Cienega Boulevard. The firm expanded during the intervening years, opening four additional dinner houses.

However, it was at Lawry's The Prime Rib that the company's trademark seasoned salt was developed. The product's popularity spurred the introduction of more than 100 food items, which are allnow manufactured at a production facility that eventually became, in 1971, the California Center in Glassel Park, near downtown Los Angeles.

Although primarily a processing operation, the California Center also serves as a multi-faceted entertainment center offering tours, gift shops and various types of food service in a showcase garden setting. The Frank family still owns the restaurant end of their company, but sold the food products segment, including the California Center, to Thomas J. Lipton Inc. in 1979. (Richard N. Frank, however, remains as chairman of the board of Lawry's Foods Inc., despite the change in ownership.)

Mayor Tom Bradley, who attended last week's luncheon, commended Lawry's for its commitment to Los Angeles.

"There is a spirit here that I would like to see replicated throughout Los Angeles," Bradley said. "When the Frank family beautified (the present site of the California Center) they upgraded the community around it. This location is a great asset for Los Angeles. . . . And it doesn't happen too often that we have continuing family ownership. That's important."

Events commemorating the anniversary will be held at both the California Center and Lawry's The Prime Rib in the months to come.

In May, for instance, former Olympians from Southern California will host a fund-raiser at the California Center for local Olympians headed to the Summer Games in Seoul.

Then on July 12, Lawry's The Prime Rib will roll back the price of a prime-rib dinner to its 1938 level: $1.25. Later in the year, Nov. 15, the restaurant will also host players from the 1938 USC and UCLA football teams, who will reminisce about their gridiron contest on its 50th anniversary. The game, incidentally, was won by USC 42-7.

"Why have a 50th anniversary?" asked Richard N. Frank, chairman of Lawry's Foods and president of Lawry's Restaurants. "Because it's an ego trip. And there is nothing wrong with that. We have thousands of employees, and even more alumni who have worked for us, and we're proud of that. So, we intend to celebrate it."

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