In the latest twist of the convoluted turf battle over fish inspection, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service -- backed by the Bush administration -- are proposing to strengthen the present voluntary fish inspection program, with industry picking up the tab.
FDA and NMFS are already getting criticism from consumer groups and industry, who in a rare meeting of the minds, have been jointly fighting for mandatory fish inspection.
The plan is also making waves in Congress, where there are nine bills pending for mandatory legislation, and in the Agriculture Department, which had hoped for a piece of the action.
Unlike meat and poultry, seafood is the only flesh food not under comprehensive, mandatory federal oversight for wholesomeness and safety. Two agencies provide a patchwork of seafood protection:
--A voluntary National Marine Fisheries Service inspection program affected approximately 11 percent of the total seafood consumed in the country last year and 7 percent of the processors. The program, which processors pay for, focuses primarily on quality and appearance of seafood, not safety.
--The Food and Drug Administration visits the nation's more than 4,000 seafood processors and wholesalers approximately once every four years, conducts lab analyses for the presence of contaminants, and maintains a shellfish safety program with the states in which there have been repeated instances of nonconformity.
Neither NMFS nor FDA certifies boats, while efforts to monitor imports are spotty and there is widespread agreement that shellfish harvesting regulations need to be better enforced.
Under the new NMFS-FDA plan, vessel owners, processors and distributors who choose to pay the government for inspection services could opt for a more safety-oriented regime, known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point.
Instead of the traditional meat-and-poultry inspection system where an inspector is continuously on hand checking all facets of an operation, under a HACCP system, only those points where contamination is most likely to occur are monitored.
The system -- which checks everything from the maximum time fish can remain on a loading dock to the temperature of the room where filleting is being done to the length of time that breaded shrimp are chilled after cooking -- has been broadly supported.
Visual and hands-on inspection is largely viewed as antiquated and generally inadequate at spotting the invisible bacteria that can lead to food poisoning.
The seafood industry, which has been working for several years on developing the standards and methods for HACCP, supports the approach. It is concerned, however, that the two agencies are plunging ahead with an incomplete program that raises more questions than it answers, and that it may become a substitute for a mandatory program instead of an interim solution.
In addition, the voluntary nature of the program defeats the purpose of HACCP, which is designed to monitor all the critical points of the fish as they travel from the water to the table, according to Richard Gutting, vice president of government relations of the National Fisheries Institute, the trade group representing the fishing industry.
Thomas Billy, director of NMFS's Office of Trade and Industry Services, said it is hoped that the plan would have a trickle-down effect; a wholesaler who chose to participate would only purchase fish from a participating processor who would buy only from an HACCP-inspected boat.
As for questions that remain, Billy admitted that the plan is "still in the formative stage" and that "it's not like we have all the answers. We're really looking for public input."
They're already getting it. "The idea is a bunch of hogwash," said Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., whose district includes the major fishing port of New Bedford. "While we're working here diligently to get (mandatory) legislation through, FDA and Fisheries talk about a voluntary system that is unacceptable to virtually everyone."
Billy of NMFS disagrees. "Since we have begun to talk about the idea, we've gotten some very favorable responses from a number of people in the seafood industry that believe it is important that we get started now while we wait to see what, if any legislation gets passed."
Nevertheless, some industry, consumer and Congressional staffers view the FDA and NMFS proposal as a power grab and a way to end run more comprehensive legislation. In five of the nine bills pending in Congress, the Department of Agriculture is designated as the responsible agency.
FDA and NMFS "are the two agencies which stand to lose authority under some of the legislative proposals," said Gutting of NFI, which would like USDA to be in charge of fish inspection. "We know that they not only very much want to retain their authority but also increase it. It's not surprising that some people have concluded that this is an effort to cut off more comprehensive legislation, but the agencies, to be fair, have not told us those are their intentions."
Derailing legislation, said NMFS' Billy, "is not the intent at all."
An FDA official added that "it's more of a power grab for USDA. The program is ours today. There's nothing wrong with it except that it's a little anemic."
What's more, even though Billy believes that in the current budget climate, user fees may be the only way to fund such a program, skeptics of the plan object to industry paying for its own regulation.
"Inspection of food is a public purpose function and should be paid for under the treasury of the United States because people's health and safety are involved," said Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan. "We don't have user fees for meat and poultry. You're talking about public health. And this is the biggest public health issue that Congress will have to face this year."
Just how much of a public health risk seafood poses is difficult to ascertain as seafood-associated disease data are largely recognized to be incomplete. While federal officials do not believe consumers face a serious health problem from eating seafood, they do believe there is some risk posed by a limited number of species -- primarily raw molluskan shellfish.
Aside from the health implications, the new plan touches a sensitive chord in the Bush administration's indecision about which agency should be given responsibility for fish inspection.
Last year, a number of meetings were held between the administration and the agencies involved, but the administration declined to take a position, instead deferring to Congress to make the decision.
An administration official who was involved in the meetings admits that "it would have been a lot neater" if the White House had favored an agency to take charge. "The bottom line is that the agencies had their own strong personal views and desires and it was not felt that a compromise was possible. It was not a big enough matter to go to the president, and have him say 'one of you wins and other two lose,' " the official said.
Then, more recently, $14 million earmarked for improving fish inspection showed up in the administration's 1991 Budget. According to Billy of NMFS, the Fisheries Service and FDA proposed a mandatory scheme (with user fees) to budget officials at the Office of Management and Budget, who declined to provide the $90 million to start up the program. NMFS and FDA then came up with the idea of strengthening the present voluntary program.
Yet to some wishful observers, policy officials in the administration are still undecided about fish inspection, even though budget officials have already designated additional money for FDA and NMFS for a voluntary program.
Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter, who from the start has been lobbying for USDA to take over the responsibility, is reportedly not pleased with the current proposal. In speaking to reporters recently, Yeutter said, "I still think it would be a good idea and I still think it (USDA) is a proper place to have that kind of program, but obviously any official pronouncements on that subject must be reflective of an administration consensus and to my knowledge, that consensus has not yet emerged."
Nevertheless, White House deputy press secretary Alixe Glen said the administration does support the new FDA-NMFS plan.