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Fresh Rules Imposed On Seafood Processors New Food Safety Program Expands To Meat Next Month

Every seafood processor must follow strict new rules starting Thursday to keep tainted fish from reaching Americans.

Hoping to prevent up to 60,000 seafood poisonings a year, the government is requiring processors to prove they do everything from buying only clean, fresh fish off boats to forcing employees to wash their hands.

“There’s not a moment when you can let your guard down,” said Dr. Michael Friedman, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The long-awaited rules mark the first industrywide test of a touted safety program that the government plans to expand into other foods, starting with meats next month. Because half the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, FDA inspectors will monitor seafood importers for the first time, even send inspectors into some foreign plants, to make sure they meet safety standards.

But consumer advocates say the rules aren’t enough, because the FDA won’t police fishing boats or retail stores. The question is how effective each seafood plant proves at fighting contamination.

“It’s going to take a couple of years before we see … if the rules really have an impact,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

About 9,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning, but no one knows how many deaths are caused by tainted fish. The FDA estimates 114,000 Americans are sickened by seafood each year and that the rules will prevent up to 60,000 of them.

Seafood is vulnerable to pollution, viruses, bacteria, even natural toxins that emerge if the fish isn’t properly chilled. Until now, the FDA had only a snapshot of safety during annual or biannual plant inspections, with no way to know how the food was handled after inspectors left.

Under the new rules, every plant must follow a customized plan designed to prevent bad seafood from reaching consumers. Called HACCP (pronounced hass-ip), which stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, plants identify every point where contamination could occur and prove that they took proper preventive steps at these points, providing a continual safety record.

FDA inspectors will visit some 3,800 seafood plants in the next year to ensure they are complying. The agency initially will help plants whose HACCP plans don’t appear safe enough to improve them, but later violations will be prosecuted.

The risks differ by species, but the first “critical point” is the docks.

Any processor buying tuna or marlin, for instance, must ensure the boat adequately chilled the fish and didn’t stay at sea too long, because scombroid poisoning can occur once those species even slightly decompose, said FDA seafood chief Philip Spiller.

Back at the plant, there are different risks. Precooked seafood such as crabmeat must be cooked at a hot enough temperature and refrigerated quickly to prevent bacterial growth, explained Thomas Rippen of the Maryland Sea Grant Program, who spent months teaching HACCP classes for seafood workers.

Ultimately, HACCP isn’t that cumbersome, said Carol Haltaman, president of the John T. Handy Co. in Crisfield, Md., who bought better thermometers and hired a quality-control manager to ready the small crab plant. HACCP will cost Handy just half a cent a crab, she said.

xxxx Seafood precautions Associated Press Some precautions consumers can take to ensure they’re eating safe seafood: Buy seafood from reputable sources that keep the products properly chilled. If fish are displayed on ice, the ice should be fresh and not melting. The market should appear clean, employees should don disposable gloves before handling food and should be knowledgeable about seafood and able to answer freshness and safety questions. Whole fish should have clear, bright eyes, not cloudy. Scales should be shiny and cling to skin. Flesh should not separate. There should be only a slight sea odor, not a strong, fishy smell. Use seafood within three days. Refrigerate it immediately after purchase. Never thaw frozen seafood at room temperature. Cook about 10 minutes per inch of thickness. If you purchase live shellfish, discard any that die in storage. People with weakened immune systems or liver problems should avoid raw oysters and other raw seafood in favor of cooked versions.