Federal Responsibilities for Insuring Safe and Pure Fish Products

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1977-11-03.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                            DOCURnT BRESUuE
 O5984 - [B13663#5 ]
 (Federal Responsibilities for Insuring Safe
 Products]. lovember 3, 1977. 6 pp.          and Eure Fish

Report to Donald Kennedy, Commissioner, Food and Drug
Administration; by Albert B. Jojokian, Assistant
Resources Div.                                   Director, Human

Contact: Human Resources Div.
Authority:   Federal   ood, Drug, and Ccsmetic Act (21   .S.C.   301).
         A survey of Federal responsibilities
and pure fish products assessed: (1) whether for insuring safe
                                              actual or potential
chemical contamination of fish products warranted
testing program; and (2) the potential for         a special
                                           coordinating Federal
 and State food inspection efforts. The survey
 for systematic, comprehensive testing of        disclosed a need
 widespread occurrence of toxic chemicals  fish  due to the
carcinogens in fsh,                        and  saspected
                      discovery of concentrated chemical
contamination in particular geographic
future chemical contamination problems. areas, and potential for
Administration (FDA) plans to iplement The Food and Drug
contamination program for fish in fiscal a special chemical
vil1                                       year 197e. The program
      contain elements necessary for assessing
of chemical contamination and should be          the health hazards
                                          aggressively monitored
to assure timely and effective implementation.
potential for maximizLng inupection resources      here is a
Federal and State food plant inspections to    by coordinating
State inspectors at a plant within the same avoid  having FDA and
Commissioner o the                          time  period. The
                    FDA should emphasize close coordination
States to maximize resources. (BRS)                           with
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 .The Honorable Donald Kennedy
 Commissioner, Food
                     and Drug
 Department of Health, Education,
   and Welfare
 Dear Dr. Kennedyi

      We recently completed a survey of
                                         Federal responsibilities
 for insuring safe and pure fish (excluding
 The work included assessing (1) whether     shellfish)   roducts.
 chemical contamination of fish products  actual or potclatial
                                          warranted a spacial
 testing program, and (2) the potential
 Federal and State food inspection efforts. coordinatin

     The work was done at Food and Drug
headquarters and within the geographic Administration (FDA)
and Baltimore district offices.         area of FDA's Boston
                                 We also
Marine Fisheries Service in Washington, visited the National
State officials in Virginia, North Carolina, and contacted
                                               and Mississippi.
     The survey disclosed a need for systematic,
testing of fish due to the                       comprehensive

           -widespread occurrence of toxic chemicals
             suspected carcinogens in fish,          and

           -- discovery of concentrated chemical
              in particular geographic areas, and

     -- potential for future chemical contamination
We also noted that the opportunity
                                    exists for maximizing
inspection resources by closer coordination
State food plant inspections.                of Federal and

     In recent years, chemical contamination
fish products has become an issue of         of fish and
                                     national concern.
The environmental impact of cnlorinated
                                        pesticides, poly-
chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and methylmercury
                                                in fish
harvesting waters has been frequently publicized. Metals
such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, selenium and zinc may also
pose harmful threats to the aquatic environment. In many
instances, Federal and State programs have provided little
foreknowledge as to the severity of chemical contamination
problems. However, once these problems were identified,
extreme actions, such as prohibiting commercial fishing,
often have been required to protect the consumer.

     Lake and river bottoms, deltas and ocean banks are
prime areas for contaminant concentration. Fish are known
to accumulate a contaminant in a higher concentration than
the level of the contaminant in their environment.
Consequently, fish caught in contaminated areas may present
larmful threats to the consuming public. In addition,
fish caught outside these prime contamination areas ha,,e
been found to contain potentially harmful chemicals.
For example, several species such as tuna, marlin, and
swordfish caught from such diverse areas as the Gulf of
Mexico, North and South Atlantic, and the Pacific Northwest
have been reported to contain excessive mercury levels.

     Environmental contamination has resulted in restricting
the use of chlorinated pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin
and phasing PCBs out of industrial applications.  Even
though industries and municipalities are attempting to
control industrial waste, the water environment may still
contain chemical contaminants.  For example, agricultural
runoff containing potentially harmful pesticides or naturally
occurring contaminants is likely to continue.

     Furthermore, limiting the use of chemicals does
not reduce their occurrence in fish because some chemicals
that have accumulated over the years persist in the water
environment. Fcr example, the use of DDT has been drastically
limited since the early 1970's. However, FDA general
surveillance programs have shown an increasing occurrence
of DDT in food products in recent years. Specifically,
FDA's draft fiscal year 1974 Pesticides in Foods Program
(the most current assessment available during our survey)
shows that the relative frequency of DDT, DDT-related
chemicals, di.eldrin and other such chemical residues
in domestic fish increased during fiscal year 1974 when
compared to the 1963-1969 period.

     Although yearly results cannot be directly compared
because of differences in species sampled and locations,
a comparison of fiscal year 1974 data for all food commodity
classes tested shows that occurrences of pesticide residues

in fish were highest for domestic samples and second highest
for imported samples. Overall, during fiscal year 1974
about 80 percent of the domestic and imported fish samples
contained pesticide residues and about 65 percent of these
fish samples contained multiple pesticide residues.

     In addition to widespread occurrences of chemical
residues in fish, there are geographically isolated problems.
Therefore, we believe there is a need to systematically
identify the threat of chemical contamination. Specifically,
while determining the national status of chemical contamina-
tion, we believe there is an equally important need to
collect information at the FDA district level in order
to appropriately address regional problems. Such sources
of information could be

     -- input from other Government agencies having knowledge
        of chemical contamination problems,

     -- field staff awareness of problems through personal
        observations and news media coverage of conditions
        in their geographic areas of responsibility, and

     -- testing programs designed to identify problems.

     FDA has been active in analyzing fish for certain
chemical contaminants. In recent years, however, coverage
has often taken the form of limited surveys designed to
determine the presence of individual contaminants or single
classes of contaminants.  Past programs either had to be
terminated due to higher priority work or have not specifically
addressed chemical contaminaticn in fish on a regional

     The problems associated with toxic and suspected
carcinogenic PCBs illustrate the need for national and
regionalized FDA surveillance and intelligence gatherinq.
Industrial applications of PCBs steadily increased from
about 1930 to 1970 resulting in persisent and widespread
environmental contamination. Subsequently, various regulatory
actions were taken and, with the cooperation of the only
U.S. producer, the situation was believed to be under control.

     By early 1970, FDA's analytical methods for detecting
PCBs had become routine and action levels for PCBs in milk,
poultry, and fish had been established.  However, in 1975,
high levels of CB contamination in fish taken from the
Hudson River refocused national attention on the contamina-
tion and Lesulted in stringent curtailing of discharges of
PCBs into the river. We believe a systematic testing
program emphasizing regional problems could have identified
the severity of the localized as well as national PCB
contamination before 1975.

     Other problems with regionalized chemical contamination
have demonstrated the need for FDA districts to be aware
of possible misuses and discharges of pesticides and
industrial chemicals in their area. For example, the
toxic and suspected carcinogen kepone was manufactured
and discharged into the James River for about a year
and a half before FDA was told of possible fish contamination.
Although FDA's testing programs were not intended to
identify kepone, additional FDA emphasis on identifying
potential regional problems may have resulted in FDA
knowledge of the poblem sooner. Subsequent testing
disclosed widespread contamination and resulted in the
Governor of Virginia closing the river to commercial
fishing. The water and sediment contamination persists
and there is no indication as to when the river will
be reopened for all types of fishing.

     In June 1977, the Governor of Virginia banned fishing
for human consumption along a 160-mile stretch of three
rivers in the Shenandoah Valley because of mercury contamination.
The mercury contamination (fish samples sowed mercury
levels up to four times the safety level) was brought
to the State's attention by industry representatives of
a company that has not used mercury in its plant operations
since 1950. We believe that ongoing regionalized FDA
testing geared to identifying potential problems may
have uncovered this problem at an earlier date.

     Other States have closed fishing waters because of
chemical contamination.  In addition to the Hudson River
in New York, portions of the Housatonic in Connecticut
have been closed due to PCB contamination. Further, the
Coosa River in Georgia and the area of Lake Hartwell in
South Carolina have reportedly been closed because of
chemical contamination. There are also fish taken from
the Great Lakes surrounding Michigan that cannot be eaten
because of chemical contamination.

     We understand that FDA plans to implement a special
chemical contamination program for fish in fiscal year
1978. The program contains elements that we believe
necessary for assessing the health hazards of chemical
contamination.  For example the program

        -- is designed to detect emerging
           new sources of contamination    problems or potential
                                         in fish,
       -- allows for attack on geographically
          problems whle determining the         isolated
          chemical contamination in fish, national status of

       -- allows for redirection of
                                     effort to confront
          newly identified chemical contamination
       -- considers the commercial
          species and past problems significance of various
                                     such as mercury in
          several species, and
        -- provides for coordinating
                                      with States and Federal
           agencies (i.e., the Environmental
           the National Marine Fisheries      Protection Agency,
           Fish and Wildlife Service)     Service,  the U.S.
                                       that may provide
           information concerning commercial
           cide usage, and sites for sampling.fishing, pesti-
       We believe the program should
                                        be aggressively Inmnitored
 to assure timely and effective
 If effectively implemented,       implementation and coordination.
                                the program should provide
 ia better information base for
 extent of chemical contamination identifying trends on the
 efforts to assure that safe,        and the need for additional
                                 pure and wholesome fish is
 available to consumers.
      State food and drug laws are
                                    patterned in varying
 degrees after Federal food
                            and drug laws. As of April
 43 States had enacted food                                1977,
                            provisions of the Uniform Sate
 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Bill
                                c' the Association of Food
 and Drug Officials which parallels
 and Cosmetic Act (21 .S.C.           the Federal Food, Drug,
                             301).   Among   other things, the
 uniform bill provides for State
                                  inspection of food plants.
      We believe there is potential
resources by coordinating Federal    for maximizing inspection
inspections to avoid having         and  State food plant
                             FDA and State inspectors at
a plant within the same period
currently coordinating inspections time.    In fact, FDA is
Virginia. FDA officials told         with  officials in
                               us they meet monthly with
officials of the Virginia Department
Commerce to jointly schedule            of Agriculture and
                              food (including fish) plant

inspections. By jointly scheduling inspections, both
Virginia and FDA officials said they maximize inspection
resources because they prevent duplicate inspections.

     We did not assess the extent FDA coordinates inspections
with all States. However, State officials in North
Carolina and Mississippi told us that food plant inspections
were not being jointly scheduled with FDA. Officials in
both States told us that duplicative o overlapping FDA
and State food plant inspections occur.

     Although we recognize that States must be willing
to cooperate with FDA before close coordination can be
achieved, we believe emphasis on coordination at your level
could stimulate development of working relationships like
those in Virginia. Accordingly, we recommend that you
emphasize close coordination with States in the interest
of maximizing resources.

     We plan no further reporting on the results of our
survey work. We appreciate the cooperation and courtesy
extended to us by FDA personnel during our survey and we
would appreciate being advised of your views with regard
to the matters discussed in this report.

                             Sincerely yours,

                             Albert B. Jojokian
                             Assistant Director