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One Man's Opinion: Industry, consumers need stronger FDA

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
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

 

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