Facts In Brief

Seafood Safety in California

"The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control agree, based on estimates of acute disease occurrences, not just those reported, that on a per-weight-consumed basis, fish is by far the safest source of muscle protein available."
Frank E. Young, MD, Ph.D., Commissioner
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
June 5, 1989 testimony before Congress

Dr. Young's 1989 testimony holds true today in California, as the State takes a lead role in seafood safety. California's fishing industry is routinely monitored, inspected, and regulated by numerous state and federal agencies to insure that seafood is wholesome and safe to eat.

  • Agencies responsible for monitoring the environment, regulating industry, or both, include:
  • California Department of Health Services (CDHS),
  • Department of Fish and Game,
  • California Environmental Protection Agency,
  • Water Quality Control Board,
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Environmental Monitoring

  • Mussel Watch Program California's Mussel Watch program has operated since 1977 under the authority of the California Water Control Board. Tests are performed under contract with the Department of Fish and Game. Designed to measure inorganic contaminants in coastal waters, the basic Mussel Watch procedure samples mussels at 150 stations statewide each January, testing for inorganic toxins. Routine tests are conducted for more than 50 different chemicals, including toxic heavy metals, chlorinated pesticides, and hydrocarbons. In addition to routine testing, special studies are conducted at specific sites, such as the Diablo nuclear power plant.
  • Shellfish Sanitation Program The Environmental Management Branch of CDHS certifies and regulates shellfish growing areas according to standards mandated by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program. All harvesters and growers of bivalve shellfish (e.g. oysters, clams, mussels) must obtain a certificate from the CDHS prior to harvest.

The Environmental Management Branch monitors state waters, testing for the presence of biotoxins occasionally found in natural "blooms" of marine algae. Biotoxins assimilated in bivalve shellfish can cause illness such as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). Domoic acid, a toxin identified on the west coast for the first time in 1991, can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP).

  • California's six commercial shellfish growing areas are tested weekly for marine biotoxins.
  • A total of 24 other sampling stations statewide are tested for biotoxins up to 18 times each year.
  • California officials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Commerce are developing an expanded, coordinated plan to address natural toxins in seafood. California fishermen are cooperating with state and federal officials to expand knowledge of marine biotoxins and their effects on California's seafood supply.

Monitoring Seafood

California's Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch, regulates seafood processors and has primary responsibility for seafood safety in the state.

  • The Food and Drug Branch requires mandatory registration of all California seafood processors and conducts a mandatory inspection annually for sanitation, packaging, proper temperature control procedures, and other public health concerns. A similar mandatory inspection is required at the retail level, with inspections performed by county health department inspectors at least annually, and often several times throughout the year.
  • CDHS validates Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs (identifying and controlling critical processing and handling points) and works closely with the voluntary federal inspection program established by the FDA and NMFS, in which California seafood processors, wholesalers, and retailers participate. These seafood handlers contract with the program for sanitation and actual product inspection at their own expense.
  • CDHS maintains strict requirements for California food-processing canneries, including mandatory licensing and inspection of all cooking processes. Each lot must be inspected and tested for size, water content, time and temperature, and can condition, insuring against leakage, before the lot receives approval for sale. No case of botulism has been reported from California's commercial cannery pack for several decades (since the mid-1950's).

In addition to state regulations, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration also inspects California processors and wholesalers twice a year. Federal law required all processors and wholesalers to implement a HACCP plan for their operations by December 18, 1997. (For more information on HACCP, refer to the section HACCP in Brief.)

The California Seafood Council supports a national HACCP program for seafood.

California Seafood Council members are working with the National Fisheries Institute (a non-profit trade association representing the U.S. seafood industry) and regulatory agencies to implement and improve a national HACCP program for seafood.

Sport or Recreational Fishing... What the Experts Say

According to the report Seafood Safety, National Academy Press 1991, which reviewed seafood-borne illness reported by the Centers for Disease Control in the 10-year period 1978-1987:

  • "One-fifth of the fish and shellfish eaten in the United States is derived from recreational or subsistence fishing, and these products are not subject to health-based control; there is need to improve protection for consumers by regulating (recreational) harvest and by education "
  • Also according to Seafood Safety, consumers of recreational fishery products are the second largest constituency at risk of suffering seafood-borne illness. (Those who eat raw molluscan shellfish are at the greatest risk.)


For More Information on Seafood Safety Issues in California:

California Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch

Chief - Stuart Richardson : (916) 445-2264

CDHS, Environmental Management Branch

Greg Langlois (PSP program) : (510) 540-3423

CDHS Shellfish Information Line : (510) 540-2605

NMFS Western Inspection Branch

Chief - Glenn Kiel : (213) 526-7412

Department of Commerce

Lou Kissel (voluntary inspection) : (301) 713-2355

National Fisheries Institute

Bob Collette (Western region) : (703) 524-8882

California Fisheries and Seafood Institute

Jane Townsend : (916) 441-5560

West Coast Seafood Processors Association

Rod Moore : (503) 227-5076

California Sea Grant - UC Davis Food Science Department

Dr. Robert Price : (916) 752-2194


Office of Seafood

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Reflecting consumers' growing interest in seafood, the U.S. FDA established its Office of Seafood in March 1991 to strengthen the agency's domestic and imported seafood programs. Seafood has the distinction of being the only food overseen by the FDA accorded its own office, and at the time of its establishment, Dr. David Kessler, FDA Commissioner, indicated that seafood is to be the litmus test for food safety standards in the United States. Responsibilities of the office include:

  • overseeing seafood inspection programs;
  • researching and testing methods to detect and evaluate the effects of contaminants in fish;
  • administering the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, which works to maintain safety of shellfish;
  • participating in programs to increase industry awareness of FDA seafood regulations and enforcement;
  • overseeing development of seafood safety inspection programs for inspectors.

In 1991, the FDA initiated a special inspection of the nation's seafood processing plants and other seafood establishments and launched a new inspection program, in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, applying Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) methods to identify and control critical processing points. California processors participated in the voluntary inspection program established by the FDA and NMFS.

H.A.C.C.P. in Brief

The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (Hass-ip) program is a state-of-the-art food safety program originally developed for astronauts to ensure safe food in space. A HACCP program identifies critical control points during a processing or handling operation for a food where a hazard, such as cross contamination, might be introduced. Critical control points could include:

  • the point of receipt,
  • the thermal processing stage of the canning process,
  • cook and post-cook stages of preparation processes,
  • final packaging or storage conditions.

HACCP mandates that seafood handlers identify key stages in seafood processing and handling where problems might occur. Companies are required to develop a monitoring system at these "critical control points" to safeguard against potential problems. The goal of the program -- and the motto of California's seafood industry -- is "keep it cold, keep it clean, and keep it moving." As part of the HACCP program, seafood processors are required to keep detailed monitoring records of their procedures for review by state and federal inspectors. Companies must also practice strict sanitation standards and maintain monitoring records, both on facility cleanliness and worker hygiene.

HACCP-based programs are now being considered for other foods, including meat and poultry.

For a "Then and Now" perspective on seafood inspection, visit the National Fishery Institute (NFI) website at www.nfi.org.

In addition to inspecting domestic seafood handlers, the Office of Seafood established a new import strategy that includes closer cooperation with state and local agencies to identify imports that reach the retail market; initiation of civil and criminal actions against importers who violate FDA regulations; short-term targeted inspection surveys of specific product categories; and education.

  • In October 1992, the FDA began a toll-free Seafood Hotline for consumers. The hotline was created to answer questions about seafood, such as buying, handling, and storage for home consumption.

The hotline number - 800 FDA 4010 - may be used in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, except in the Washington DC metropolitan area, where the number is (202) 205-4314.

FDA seafood specialists are available between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM Eastern time, Monday through Friday, to answer specific questions. However, the Hotline is available 24 hours a day through a computerized information retrieval system accessed with touchtone telephone. Callers may request FDA publications, listen to pre-recorded seafood safety messages, and gain access to other information.

  • In March 1993, FDA Commissioner David Kessler, MD announced FDA plans to implement a mandatory HACCP quality control program throughout the seafood industry.
  • All U.S. Seafood Processors were required to have HACCP plans in place by December 18, 1997.

Conservation Policies

California's commercial fishermen are conservationists who proactively support the protection of water quality and marine habitat to insure the long-term viability of the fishing industry. One of the clearly-stated goals of the California Seafood Council is to safeguard the consumer supply of California seafood.

Industry policies and CSC programs include:

Fishermen's Oil Response

Fishermen's Oil Response programs have organized a network of commercial fishermen to assist in oil-spill clean-up. Modeled after the Fishermen's Oil Response Team (FORT) established by Ventura County commercial fishermen, the program trains fishermen to handle clean-up equipment. Names of trained fishermen and their vessel capabilities are then compiled in a computerized database, on call in emergency. The FORT program has trained and registered more than 100 fishermen from the Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Morro Bay areas. The program has expanded to encompass major ports along the northern California coast as well.

Oil spill workshops are conducted by oil industry clean-up cooperatives stationed along the coast, and the fishermen's oil response team is mobilized by a coordinator and works under the direction of the cooperative during a spill. The FORT team has been called to action several times in the past few years to combat oil spills or leakages. Commercial fishermen have provided invaluable assistance in the clean-up of oil spills. Currently, three fishermen's oil response networks have been organized in different areas of California. More groups are planned.

Fishermen Involved In Saving Habitat (F.I.S.H.)

F.I.S.H. is a national coalition of fishing groups, fish-related business enterprises, scientists, and environmental groups whose goal is to establish national policies and priorities to protect, conserve, enhance, and restore the quality and diversity of aquatic ecosystems essential to fish. Founded in 1988, the F.I.S.H. coalition is a non-profit association directed by a six-person executive committee. Local, regional, and international F.I.S.H. chapters have formed. A habitat education program stressing the importance of protecting wetlands and water quality are among the activities advocated by this coalition.

California Seafood Council, PO Box 91540,		Santa Barbara, CA 93190 +1-805-569-8050