ORA investigator Derek Dealy shares how his discovery at the famous Japanese market protected public health and, personally, affirmed his choice of career.
As our agency’s foods program resumes its routine inspections around the world, I’ve been thinking back to an amazing, but challenging, trip I made to Japan—before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our daily lives.
The whole world seemed to be asleep at 3:30 a.m. as my taxi beelined to the Philadelphia airport. It was October 2019, and I was in the middle of my first year serving as a member of ORA’s dedicated foreign food cadre—a team of individuals specially trained and committed to conducting inspections and ensuring U.S. food safety overseas. I was headed to Japan, a place I’d never visited, but one I was excited to be immersed in for the next three weeks.
It would take multiple flights, trains—plus the help of Google Maps and a few wordless exchanges with train ticket cashiers—before I arrived at Toyosu Market in Tokyo, the largest wholesale fish market in the world. Seafood is a major focus of our agency, given its popularity among American consumers, status as an important U.S. food import (with more than 90 percent of our seafood coming from other countries), and its unique vulnerabilities while being transported across global markets.
The two companies I was inspecting had both purchased fish from the auctions at Toyosu, then packed and shipped the product by air to distributors in the United States. The concern from my professional perspective was whether the fish, which included wild mackerel and Japanese bluefish, posed any scombrotoxin risk.
If fish aren’t refrigerated appropriately, spoilage can occur, leading to bacterial growth and the production of scombrotoxins (or histamines), which can, in turn, be harmful to consumers. People who unwittingly consume tainted fish can suffer scombroid poisoning, which typically presents as an allergic response with symptoms such as facial flushing, dizziness, nausea, headache, and heart palpitations. We call the toxins scombrotoxins as they’re associated with fish from the Scombridae family of fish, a group that includes mackerel and tuna.
Ultimately, my inspections at the market revealed deficiencies with how the companies had controlled scombrotoxin hazards. I promptly shared those findings with the companies, in addition to walking them through the relevant seafood guidance documents. They committed to making the recommended corrections and submitted their documented actions to the FDA for review. In the end, the agency determined that all necessary corrections had been made, consistent with our country’s rigorous seafood safety standards.
It’s inspections like these that underscore the importance of the FDA mission and our work on ORA’s foreign food cadre. Our capacity to regulate, and importantly, educate, food facilities worldwide is critical to ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply. As this experience perfectly illustrated, a lack of adequate food safety controls at a single foreign company has the potential to impact hundreds of U.S. companies, and, most critically, the health of many Americans.
“I consider my time conducting overseas investigations as the most rewarding work I’ve done at the FDA.” – Derek Dealy, Dedicated Foreign Food Cadre Investigator with ORA
While distant travel and long trips overseas can be challenging, I consider my time conducting overseas investigations as the most rewarding work I’ve done at the FDA. I’m excited and proud to be a part of this team and work as a public servant.
A special note to readers: The agency uses every available tool to identify immediate and potential food risks, as well as the best courses of action to protect public health and safety. A major player in FDA’s import safety efforts, ORA strives to provide as much available information and guidance about seafood safety as possible to consumers, industry, and our many federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners—including those in your community. For more about our efforts to keep your seafood safe, visit FDA’s Imported Seafood Safety Program.
We do too! The Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA)—among our many functions—has investigators and other specialists located around the world who spend their days inspecting, researching, and testing foods, including seafood—all with the goal of protecting American consumers.
You may not know it, but the FDA is continuously focused on a range of health risks associated with seafood that have the potential to cause illness or harm. Among these hazards are scombrotoxins, naturally occurring bacterial products that can form in spoiled Scombridae fish, like tuna, as discussed in the article above. Risks also include pathogenic bacteria, like Vibrio and Salmonella; viruses, like the notorious norovirus; and parasites—as well as unsafe chemicals associated with aquaculture and fish farming.
Be assured that these risks and potential foodborne, illness-causing culprits are of the utmost importance to ORA and the greater FDA. The agency, for instance, is currently in pursuit of the most scrupulous, effective, and rapid means of zeroing in on potentially unsafe sources of seafood bound for the United States. We’re also committed to supporting American fisheries and producers, many of whom embrace an optimal food safety culture in the way they do business.
For more on FDA efforts surrounding seafood safety, visit https://www.fda.gov/food/resources-you-food/seafood.
To learn what you can do as a consumer to be smart around seafood (whether you cook it or just enjoy eating it!), visit https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/selecting-and-serving-fresh-and-frozen-seafood-safely.
This chart can help you choose which fish to eat and how often to eat them, based on their mercury levels.