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One Man's Opinion: Industry, consumers need stronger FDA
By Peter Redmayne
June 01, 2008
The latest in a long line of alarmist media exposés about
the sad state of the safety of our seafood supply was filed by
the St. Louis Post Dispatch this May under the headline The
World is Sending Us Their Junk. The piece reinforced the
impression that eating seafood is a bit of a crapshoot.
Seafood safety stories have been a darling of the news media
for some time now. Most recently, there has been a barrage of
stories about the safety of imported seafood - especially from
developing countries like China and Vietnam. Inevitably, the
stories point out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
under whose purview seafood unfortunately falls, looks at less
than 1 percent of all the seafood that comes into the country,
which accounts for 81 percent of our seafood supply up from
about 60 percent just 15 years ago.
And it's not just a safety issue. FDA inspectors readily
acknowledge they can't check things like net weights. "We don't
have time for that," one FDA seafood inspector told me on the
condition of anonymity. "That's up to the buyers and sellers to
sort it out."
It's crystal clear that the FDA has not been up to the task
of monitoring seafood imports for quite a while. And how could
it? A political piñata, the agency is woefully understaffed
when it comes to doing its myriad jobs. The FDA has hired only
a handful of additional inspectors to look at the 5 billion
pounds of seafood imports.
Meanwhile, imports are just going to keep growing as an
aging - and expanding - U.S. population eats more fish. The
additional seafood supplies are going to come from developing
countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia, where keeping an
eye on thousands of small fish farmers and seafood processors
is a Herculean task.
But there are some promising signs that the browbeaten
agency is finally standing up to the Bush administration, which
has thwarted its efforts to get its job done time and time
again. In February, President Bush asked Congress to give the
FDA an extra $50 million over the next fiscal year, a figure
that would not even cover increases in salary expenses. When
Congress responded by asking FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew C. von
Eschenbach what he needed to do his job, the commissioner
demurred and said to do so he "would need a business plan."
This May, though, the commissioner broke rank and appealed
directly to Congress for an additional $275 million. That a
commissioner would risk the wrath of the White House was
unprecedented. "In 30 years at the agency I never saw anything
like that," William Hubbard, a former deputy FDA commissioner,
told The New York Times.
"This is similar in enlightenment to when St. Paul got
knocked off his mule by a bolt of lightening," observed veteran
Michigan congressman John Dingell.
That's good news for the seafood industry. At the end of the
day, a stronger FDA means stronger consumer confidence, which
is something this industry sorely needs.
Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle