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Shelling Out The Warnings

by the Fish Site Editor
07 December 2009, at 12:00am

US - Since 2005, companies that process shellfish in Bay, Franklin and Gulf counties have been sent nearly 80 letters from the state warning that they were in violation of various industry standards.

The three are the only area counties with processors licensed by the state.

Warning letters are sent after state officials identify a range of “deficiencies” during quarterly inspections. Problems found at area processors over the last three years included shellfish being kept in refrigerators that could not maintain temperatures below 45 degrees, fly tape hung over work tables, and shellfish lying directly on the floor where people walk, according to hundreds of pages of inspection documents reviewed by The News Herald.

The number of warning letters sent to the 29 processors in Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties varied, with some processors receiving none, and one receiving 11 within the last three-year period.

Warning letters are broken into two categories, “critical” deficiencies, which must be fixed before operation can continue, and “key” deficiencies, which must be fixed prior to follow-up inspections. The letters, however, are not enforcement actions. If deficiencies are not remedied by a certain date, fines are levied.

The most common critical deficiency found in the records reviewed by The News Herald was for bags of shellfish that did not have tags indicating they came from a licensed dealer.

Officials stressed that most processors will get a warning letter at some point, and they don’t always mean a poor operation.

“It is a pretty comprehensive inspection. If we see one piece of spider web in a corner, we write that up as a violation,” said Alan Peirce, bureau chief for the Division of Aquaculture.

Because the inspections are conducted quarterly, however, companies continue to process and sell shellfish for months before state inspectors have the opportunity to document both critical and key deficiencies.

For instance, Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint has received 11 warning letters since 2005, the most of any area processor. In 2007 alone, Barber’s received three letters and 55 total deficiencies. Each deficiency found in 2007 eventually was remedied, but because of the quarterly inspection schedules, untold numbers of shellfish were processed and sold before state investigators were aware of any problems.

Barber’s owner, David Barber, said inspectors can write up a processor for almost anything.

“Sometimes I think if they don’t write you up for something, they don’t think they are doing their jobs,” he said. “If someone leaves a Coke bottle out, or see a fly flying around they can write you up.”

In an August 2006 inspection, state officials found 40 deficiencies at Barber’s, including condensation dripping on shellfish, “rodents, insects, or other vermin, or evidence of their activity (droppings or runs) in the facility,” and shucked shellfish sitting out while workers were on break.

Mr Barber said he does not remember that visit.

In Bay County, Hunt’s Oyster Bar leads the county’s four processors with five warning letters issued since 2005. Hunt’s owner Randy Hunt did not return calls seeking comment.

David Heil, who has been with the Division of Aquaculture for 30 years, said it is difficult to term the number of warning letters received by a processor excessive because there are several factors that come into play.

“It’s important to understand each violation and the severity of each violation, as well as the type of shellfish processing firm,” he wrote in an e-mail.

He did say some companies do a better job than others avoiding warning letters.

“It is a fact that some processing firms do a better job of complying with rules compared with other processing firms,” he wrote.

The Department of Agriculture offers training and education to help companies that receive warnings, he said.

the Fish Site Editor