The revised seafood inspection rules announced Tuesday by the Clinton administration were a long time in coming. We hope they herald new resolve in Washington on the issue of food safety.
The change will move the Food and Drug Administration away from reliance on spot inspections of seafood packers and toward continuous monitoring of processing plants by the packers themselves.
The current system for both seafood and meats, established in the early 1900s, is now seen as ineffective because it primarily detects problems only after they occur. And those problems do occur. The FDA estimates that contaminated seafood alone sickens 20,000 to 60,000 Americans annually. Federal health officials do not know how many deaths result.
The new seafood rules properly focus on preventing contamination in the first place. Businesses would have to determine the points in the packing process where, say, bacterial contamination or metal fragments could be introduced. They must then establish a process to detect such problems and must document those efforts. Furthermore, companies that purchase seafood must verify that the fish were not caught in waters known to contain chemical toxins.
The regulations take effect immediately, although the seafood industry has two years to phase them in fully. The industry has supported the changes. Unfortunately, such is not the case with the meat and poultry industry and proposals to upgrade its turn-of-the-century regulatory scheme. Meatpackers strenuously opposed draft rules that were released early this year in an effort to improve the Agriculture Department's inspection program.
Overextended federal inspectors still rely on touch, smell and visual examination of meats; under the draft rules, inspectors would use microscopes to detect bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which annually cause 5 million people to fall ill.
Final USDA rules could come by early next year. Approval of new rules for meat and poultry is every bit as important as the new seafood rules.