The B.C. Liberal government has introduced a bill to modernize the inspection of fish and seafood. The proposed legislation centres on enhanced food safety, Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick told the legislative assembly on March 25.
Bill 21 (Fish and Seafood Act) would apply to fish and aquatic plants that are produced and processed for human consumption in B.C. and would replace the provincial Fisheries Act and the Fish Inspection Act, both of which date back to the 1950s and ’60s.
“The old acts—there were two of them—go back to the days of Elvis Presley and the Beatles,” Letnick told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “Since then, a lot has changed. The laws are different now in terms of what the DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans, now Fisheries and Oceans Canada] covers federally and what we cover provincially, so we’ll bring them up-to-date with the new reality of federal and provincial jurisdictions.
“We’re beefing up the benefits to public safety, making sure there’s a strong focus on that,” Letnick added. “Food safety is the number one priority for all agencies of government. What we’re going to do here is enable, with legislation, higher food-safety standards.”
NDP agriculture and food critic Lana Popham was not able to comment on the new act before press time.
To understand why rigorous safety standards are crucial in relation to fish and seafood, consider a survey of crab- and shrimp-processing plants conducted in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Agriculture found Listeria monocytogenes—a potentially deadly microorganism—on the plants’ floors and walls and on the tops of processing tables, according to a 2011 report on fish-processing plants by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s Food Protection Services.
“L. monocytogenes was also found in saturated brine and in sea gull droppings,” the B.C. report said in citing the Oregon study. “Cooked crab meat and shrimp were contaminated with L. monocytogenes by contact with the dirty table top, by steam condensate dripping from the ceiling, and by aerosol generated by the high-pressure hose spray that kicked up the dirt on the floor.”
The proposed single act would set out higher levels of accountability for people engaged in food production of fish and aquatic plants and higher penalties for those who contravene the act. It would regulate the growing and harvesting of aquatic plants as well as the receiving, selling, storing, transporting, and processing of aquatic plants and fish that are intended to be consumed or that may enter our food-distribution system.
The act stipulates that anyone who possesses, rears, grows, harvests, processes, stores, transports, or distributes fish or seafood must ensure it’s safe for human consumption and that it’s not contaminated via exposure to conditions that could permit the presence of: “foreign matter, including filth, a poisonous substance or a pest”; disease-causing microorganisms or parasites; or toxins.
“A hazard may be an unacceptable level of disease-causing micro-organisms or products of microbial activity (i.e. toxins),” the BCCDC report on fish-processing plants notes. “Hazards may also be caused by chemical substances that reach food inadvertently through various environmental sources, or during food processing, preparation or storage. Hazards can result from food additives that are used in excess of functional or culinary needs; or from materials that leach into highly acidic food from containers, pipes or their toxic coatings. Physical hazards may also occur, for example, glass, metal fragments and insects.”
Disease-causing bacteria associated with fish include those that belong to the genera Salmonella and Shigella. Then there are Clostridium botulinum—a spore-forming bacterium found in soil, sediment, fish intestines, and water that produces a deadly toxin in the absence of air—and Staphylococcus aureus, which resides on human skin and in mucous membranes and can be transmitted by food handlers through nose and throat discharges and infected skin lesions, thereby contaminating seafood.
Vibrio species are another concern. These marine bacteria occur naturally in the environment and can cause gastroenteritis, wound infections, and septicemia; one of the genus’s species causes cholera. Foods commonly containing vibrios are contaminated cooked crabs, raw and partially cooked oysters and clams, and raw seafood.
After C. botulinum, the microorganism of most concern to the seafood industry is the aforementioned L. monocytogenes. “L. monocytogenes is extremely virulent to immunocompromised individuals, including pregnant women and unborn infants,” the BCCDC report notes. “The fatality rate for susceptible individuals is as high as 30%. In 2009, a survey was conducted in dairy, fish and meat facilities in BC that produce RTE [ready-to-eat] foods…. When considering results by type of facility, Listeria monocytogenes was only found in ready-to-eat foods collected from fish processors. The types of foods contaminated included cold-smoked salmon and hot-smoked salmon products such as salmon leather and jerky.”
The Fish and Seafood Act would increase the need for licences, data collection, and traceability and would boost enforcement and penalties.
Letnick said the development of the proposed legislation was done in consultation with several groups, including small-scale food processors, the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., the Seafood Producers Association of B.C., the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, B.C. shellfish processors, the B.C. Seafood Alliance, and the BCCDC, among others, as well as various health authorities, governments, and First Nations groups.