When the Government Accounting Office published a report slamming the Food and Drug Administration's relatively new monitoring system designed to make seafood safer to eat, the general public sat up and noticed.
It also reminded retailers to check their suppliers and renew assurances that the products they were receiving were safely handled and processed.
News reports surrounding release of the report called it "scathing" and focused on the danger to American consumers. But Ken Coons, longtime executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Association, Boston, believes retailers who have good relationships with seafood suppliers -- who operate under Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs -- can continue to have faith in their seafood products.
"The GAO report on HACCP appears to have been motivated by those who want to discredit the HACCP program. The best indication that seafood HACCP is working is that seafood isn't making people ill," said Coons. "Right now the industry is more concerned about inaccurate copycat environmental guides to sustainable fish eating."
The GAO pointed out that statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 15% of the 76 million cases of foodborne illness reported each year are caused by seafood. But the numbers, the most recent available, came from 1997 -- the same year the FDA implemented its Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system for seafood.
The January report went on to say only 44% of U.S. seafood plants are listed by FDA as in compliance with HACCP. It also criticized the agency for failing to inspect most imports, noting more than half of the seafood products consumed in the United States are sourced from other countries. "The potential health risks associated with these violations are significant," the GAO warned.
Mike Bavota, director of seafood sales for Program Sales and Marketing, Tampa, Fla., said HACCP has changed the culture of the seafood industry in a positive way in four short years.
"If HACCP has done nothing else, it's made people more aware of foodborne illness. There's a greater incidence of people purposely trying not to make their customers sick," said Bavota, who's also a veteran retail seafood manager, seafood cookbook author and former HACCP trainer for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Inspection Division.
Karla Ruzicka, chief of the National Training Branch of the USDC's Inspection Division in Gloucester, Mass., and a longtime HACCP trainer, believes the black-and-white nature of the GAO report presents a misleading picture, and therefore doesn't give an accurate snapshot of the industry.
"If a plant had one problem that kept them from full compliance, they were just counted as 'out of compliance,"' she said. "It doesn't necessarily mean they are doing a bad job or that anyone is at risk."
But even critics of the GAO report concede the FDA's blueprint has helped standardize a food-safety system that had been developed in bits and pieces, state by state, resulting in a lot of mixed signals from regulators, Bavota added.
"HACCP has given all inspectors a language processors understand, and that cuts across the entire food industry," he told SN. "From a professional standpoint, I think it's made them better at their jobs."
Front-line employees have also improved their safety record. When Bavota moved to the south several years ago, he often saw people working at seafood counters or in plants who didn't wear hats to keep hair out of the food. The difference today is that everyone is wearing protective garments, even if they're presidents of companies.
"That's because people are invested in safety, and HACCP created that awareness. Twenty years ago it would have been hard to find anyone who knew about cross-contamination, or the word 'pathogen.' Now you will never see raw chicken and cooked ham being cut on the same board," he said.
The success of any HACCP plan depends on the support of management -- and a complete buy-in from middle management and employees, according to Kathy Scanlon, quality assurance manager for National Fish and Seafood, Gloucester, Mass., an importer, exporter and processor of frozen seafood.
"We have a president and a floor sweeper all invested in food safety. Everyone knows what to do next. We're accountable and have all our documents and records available," Scanlon said. "That's what HACCP is all about, taking ownership of the quality of your product. We're a team; we all wrote the plan."
Scanlon has worked with HACCP in three processing plants using the U.S. Department of Agriculture's voluntary program, long before FDA required it. She says HACCP has completely changed the culture in processing facilities.
"I used to have to put on my bulletproof vest before I went over to the production side to tell them the product was no good and to shut down," recalled Scanlon. "Now I've taken it off. When management wants HACCP to work, the philosophy flows through the whole company."
Ruzicka added that HACCP "separates the nice from the necessary." The whole concept can be reduced to three basic, simple control measures: time, temperature and sanitation. And these parameters have always been used to protect seafood quality.
"So why do we need HACCP? Because when people get busy, systems fall apart," she said. "But HACCP boils down to the significant hazards and they have to be documented. It takes time and involvement because it's focused on risk. But it's become the smart way to manage."
For some in the business, the GAO report created more questions than it answered. One processor wondered what's keeping the 44% cited by the GAO report as operating without a food-safety plan from becoming HACCP-compliant.
"I think the HACCP program is one of the best things to come down the pike," said Dustin Batley, general manager of Ducktrap River Fish Farms, Belfast, Maine, a purveyor of high-end smoked salmon and other prepared products. "It was one of the healthiest programs this company could have adopted because of the self-examination it forces you to go through."
Batley noted that compliance rates might improve more dramatically if FDA possessed more enforcement power. Rather, the agency's charter puts it between a rock and a hard place, he said.
"They have no power but threats. They have to go to court to shut someone down," he said. "They're trying to protect industry as well as consumers."
Like Ducktrap, the John T. Handy Co., Crisfield, Md., operates under HACCP and exports a lot of product. Processors of soft-shelled crabs who have doubled their business in five years, many Handy products fall into the high-risk category, such as stuffed crabs, crab cakes and salmon cakes.
"HACCP is an ideal program for our company," said Wanda Marshall, quality-control manager. "We follow HACCP to the letter here. We sell to retail. We sell all over the world. And we've never yet had a problem."
"I think FDA has taken a good approach to work with industry to achieve compliance, but to expect there will be 100% compliance only a couple of years into a program is unreal," Ruzicka added. "Is there room to grow? Yes. I believe most companies are making a good-faith effort. I have only run into a few that are not, and they won't be around very long."