Chase of the scallops brings monitoring of seafood into question

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Call it the Case of the Swollen Scallops, o how a half-ton of chemically treated shellfish eluded the federal seafood police.

From New England to Maryland and back, the scallops led the Food and Drug Administration on a merry chase. Then the shipment slipped through the dragnet and vanished.


This goes to show, some critics say, that the FDA, the federal agency most responsible for the safety of seafood, lacks the clout to do a proper job.

"As consumers, we have to rely mostly on a failed patchwork of voluntary federal and state seafood safety programs," says Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer lobby group. "This is why we have problems with contaminated seafood in this country."


Last year, the National Academy of Sciences reported that seafood sold in the U.S. is generally wholesome.

But regulation of the industry is "too limited," the academy said in a study commissioned by Congress.

The FDA acknowledges that it has limited resources to monitor an industry that is both huge and diverse -- 4,000 seafood processing plants, hundreds of products and 180,000 shipments imported seafood a year.

The scallop chase began in April, on a crisp spring morning in New Bedford, Mass., when FDA inspectors paid a surprise visit to Northern Wind, one of several seafood-processing plants around New England to receive snap inspections that week.

At Northern Wind, the inspectors found what they had expected: nearly 1,000 pounds of scallops soaking in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).

It is a legal food additive, but one that has been overused on scallops, the FDA says.

Other inspectors made similar finds at other plants in New

England. But in all cases, not having the authority to seize the suspect scallops, the inspectors took samples and asked the companies to withhold the product voluntarily from market while the FDA ran tests.


Northern Wind's co-owner, Kenneth Melanson, says he complied, and placed the scallops -- almost $5,000 worth -- in a freezer. But he insists that treating scallops with STPP is legitimate.

"It's something I've been doing for 15 years. We all have," he says. "The practice is safe; it increases shelf life and gives a better taste [to the scallops].

"What's wrong with that?"

The FDA takes a different view. "We had been trying for months to get [the scallop processors] to stop the soaking," says Ed McDonnell, director of the FDA's Boston office, which co-ordinated the snap inspections.

"We warned them repeatedly."

The salt-like STPP is not intrinsically harmful. The FDA allows processors to spray the chemical onto scallops before shipment to keep them moist and fresh-looking. The agency also allows it to be used on prepared meats, like ham and turkey.


But FDA officials say that overuse of STPP causes foods to "lock in" excess water. This raises the weight -- and hence the price -- of such a shipment.

"We've seen soaking for hours and days and, in one case, for up to a week," says Mr. McDonnell. "It can increase the weight by up to 40 percent."

"What they're essentially doing is selling water at $5 a pound," adds Robert Crowell, acting chief of investigations for the FDA office in Boston.

'Absolute balderdash'

"That's absolute balderdash," retorts Brian Veasy, a New Bedford processor of scallps who set up the American Scallop Association in the heat of the dispute to fight for the industry's interests. "Every can [of scallops] is clearly labeled, showing all the contents. Nobody's being cheated."

His association has mounted a $75,000 research study that he hopes will prompt the FDA to change the regulations for scallop processing and marketing and set clear guidelines for STPP use.


Mr. Veasy accuses the FDA of deliberately exaggerating STPP's water-logging effect on scallops.

"There is a slight weight gain, just as there is with chicken and turkey and a whole lot of other products where it's used," Mr. Veasy says. "But it's something the wholesalers demand because it increases the shelf life."

While the debate heated up, Northern Wind's Mr. Melanson began to fret about the half-ton of scallops in his freezer. Days passed. Then a week. And then a second week without any word from the FDA.

Nearly three weeks after the snap inspection, an FDA official telephoned Northern Wind and asked if the scallops still were there. But Mr. Melanson says the official gave no indication when or how the matter would be resolved.

Exasperated, Mr. Melanson shipped the scallops the next day to fish wholesaler Louis Foehrkolb in Jessup, Md.

The Foehrkolb company supplies restaurants and retailers in the Baltimore-Washington area.


It took a few weeks for the FDA office in Boston to find out that the shellfish had flown, so to speak. It asked the agency's Baltimore bureau to prevent the scallops from reaching the market.

Once again, lacking the power of seizure, the Baltimore FDA officials could only ask the Jessup wholesaler to hold the shipment. It did so, voluntarily.

'No hardship for us'

"It's no hardship for us; we just don't pay for it," company manager Tim Shugrue told The Sun.

But as months passed without action from the FDA, Mr. Shugrue's patience ran out, too.

So he shipped the scallops back to Ken Melanson at Northern Wind in New Bedford.


The FDA was not happy about the move. "I've got a business to run. I needed space in the cooler," Mr. Shugrue says he explained to a chagrined Baltimore FDA official.

Mr. Melanson confirms having received the boomeranging consignment. He told The Sun that he resold the scallops -- at a loss of about $500. But he won't say who bought them.

"I don't want [the FDA] to harass any more of my customers," he says.

FDA officials in Boston did not know the shipment had flown again; they thought Northern Wind had destroyed it.

The shellfish were never a health hazard. But the FDA's inability to seize them and its reliance on voluntary compliance by the companies involved raise questions about the agency's clout.

Critics point out that the FDA cannot seize products processed and sold within a state. But, says the FDA's Mr. Crowell, "If [the scallops] had been hazardous, you can bet we would have found a way to stop them."


Maybe so, but the FDA, as always, would have needed help from another federal agency with more enforcement power -- the Justice Department or the Commerce Department, for example.

But that procedure is too cumbersome and uncertain to be dependable, says Public Voice's Ms. Haas. She wants the FDA itself to have such powers.

Mr. Crowell argues that the FDA is understaffed and underfunded to begin with, and additional legal authority would only overload it with red tape.

Other FDA officials, including members of the high command in Washington, echo this theme.

Part of larger story

The scallop chase is but one episode in a larger story: seafood safety.


Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the beef and poultry industries and has clear-cut authority, the FDA -- best known for controlling medications -- heads a complicated federal-state system for policing seafood.

Public concern about seafood safety has been felt in Congress; the most recent effort to strengthen regulation of the industry was a Senate bill that stalled in committee this year but is likely to be reintroduced in 1993.

The bill would grant powers of seizure to the FDA and increase its funding; require the USDA to monitor fish processing in foreign countries; and increase the monitoring of domestic growing waters by state and federal agencies.

Here's how the seafood regulatory system operates now:

* Processing plants are inspected by the FDA and also by state health agencies -- as far as funds and staff permit. In Maryland, for example, the FDA inspects crab meat plants once a year, and state inspections are conducted about once a month.

* The FDA checks imported seafood.


* Shellfish harvest waters are monitored by individual states -- as far as funds and staffing permit -- based on standards set by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, an organization of state and federal officials and industry representatives.

* The FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency share the task of setting federal guidelines for residual chemical contaminants.

* For a fee, many seafood companies have their products reviewed and graded by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the Commerce Department. But the program is not mandatory, and some people in the industry say the procedure often is cursory.

The industry's largest trade group, the National Fisheries Institute, says the risk of illness from seafood is "no greater, and in many cases, far less than that attributed to other animal proteins."

But the FDA's inspection program "would be enhanced by some additional authority and funding," the institute says.

In 1990 the FDA stepped up its seafood-monitoring efforts; the number of inspectors nearly doubled, to 325, and the inspection budget increased from $25 million to $40.5 million -- roughly the amount that will be spent this year, says George Hoskin, associate director of the agency's Office of Seafood.


Problem of imports

Imports are a growing burden for the FDA; shipments total about 180,000 a year and now account for 50 percent to 60 percent of seafood consumption in the United States.

Last year the FDA sampled only about 4 percent of the imports. But that ratio is somewhat misleading, Mr. Hoskin says.

He explains that inspectors concentrate on high-risk shipments, such as from countries where outbreaks of disease have occurred, and rarely does bad fish reach the market. As for domestic products, the FDA must monitor about 4,000 processing plants.

Unlike the USDA, whose policy is to have resident inspectors at meat and poultry plants, the FDA generally inspects each seafood plant once a year. Mr. Hoskin points out that the seafood industry is far more scattered and diverse than are the meat or poultry industries; there are hundreds of kinds of fish and shellfish, caught and processed in a wide variety of ways.

He insists, though, that the regulatory system is effective, and that the seafood products Americans eat are safe. The Centers for Disease Control, the General Accounting Office and the National Academy of Sciences have examined the issue of seafood safety, Mr. Hoskin notes.


"If you look at the scientific reports . . . you'll see there is no health crisis," he says.