By Rona Kobell
J. J. McDonnell & Co., Inc. processes thousands of pounds of fish a day: lobster trucked to its Howard County headquarters from Maine, crabs plucked from Tangier Sound, farmed oysters from Southern Maryland and tuna flown in from Africa.
They’re different species, but their requirements are the same — constant, consistent cold. Under 50 degrees for live fish, under 40 degrees for dead ones.
With uncertainty about new regulations and increases in the reported cases of food-borne illnesses, wholesale fish distributors are taking their need for refrigeration to a whole new level — and place. Some, like McDonnell, have moved out of the wholesale city markets that used to be gathering places for early-morning fish delivery and banter. Others are going out of business, selling out to competitors, or merging to share space and expenses.
All of this is happening because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has in the past signaled it was looking at tougher regulations to bring seafood under refrigeration, which is the first line of defense against pathogens and illnesses. But changes are also happening because distributors’ customers are getting larger and more global as well as seeking increasingly high standards to ensure their food is safe.
Illnesses from seafood
The pressure is coming both from the threat of regulatory changes and the industry itself.
Regulators in the past have been concerned about Vibrio, a bacteria that lives in warm waters and can contaminate seafood.
In 2013, 104 cases of illness from ingesting the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — including several in Maryland and Virginia. That type of Vibrio, which typically results in a severely upset stomach, comes from eating raw or undercooked seafood, usually oysters. It often occurs in the warmer months, as Vibrio thrives in temperatures above 70 degrees.
Vibrio can contaminate tuna, sardines, shrimp and other species, but it is most known for infecting oysters, mussels and clams. A diner can’t tell from looking at a raw oyster, but eating one can bring on the illness.
(Another kind of bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, is more serious and can enter the skin through a cut when it’s present in the water. Those infections, though far rarer, can result in the loss of a limb or even death; but they are not from seafood.)
Most people who consume shellfish do not get sick from Vibrio, and even when they do it’s hard to confirm that the infections were the result of eating tainted seafood. Several years ago, in a rare instance, Maryland health officials, with federal help, did trace a pair of Vibrio cases from restaurant patrons in Baltimore to infected oysters in state waters.
When the FDA floated its uniform standard, the state and its seafood businesses were already working on Vibrio control plans. Maryland had agreed to get its oysters under refrigeration within five hours of harvest for the summer months, a provision that only affected oyster aquaculture because the wild fishery is closed then.
The FDA accepted the plan, which differed on temperature from state to state. The agency then decided in 2014 that it wanted a uniform standard: under refrigeration within one hour of harvest. The states fought the plan, and won, but are not sure if it will re-emerge. Spokespeople for the agency said they could not comment on possible future regulations.
More regs under Obama; maybe less under Trump
Also unknown is what will become of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which former President Barack Obama signed into law in 2011. The law gave companies a few years to put in place plans that showed better control over their supply chains and the temperature of their food. FDA inspections of public markets and warehouses also increased. The law was passed so the agency would be proactive and attempt to prevent outbreaks rather than react to them.
The Trump administration has signaled that it is interested in less regulation, not more. But seafood processors say less regulation is not necessarily better. The Maryland seafood industry has not had a “peanut moment,” where it had to recall millions of dollars’ worth of nuts because of E.coli poisoning, or a Jack In the Box situation, where E.coli-tainted hamburgers sickened more than 700 people and stained the fast-food brand for decades. One reason for that, distributors say, are the strict protocols in place.
“They’re tough to meet, but we certainly don’t want to get anyone sick,” said Harris Seafood Co.’s Jason Ruth, whose Kent Island company is the state’s only remaining year-round oyster shucker. The new administration, he said, “could be less restrictive, which is not a good thing.”
Regardless of what the FDA does, seafood distributors know that a case of food-borne illness in Maryland from seafood can cost them not only millions of dollars in business, but customers for life. It’s especially important as fish reclaims a spot on the U.S. diet as a heart-healthy food — and farm-raised Chesapeake oysters enjoy a resurgence at the raw bar.
For decades, J. J. McDonnell and 17 other seafood distributors shared a large, communal wholesale market — first at the Baltimore Harbor and since 1984 in Jessup. A state agency, the Maryland Food Center Authority, runs the market and leases space to vendors and distributors.
The market arrangement met McDonnell’s needs for many years, said owner George McManus, who started at the company as a truck driver in 1978 and took the helm eight years later. But the lack of control over the space proved to be a problem; the open dock where trucks delivered shipments was not refrigerated.
Preserving the cold chain
That came to present a weak link in what wholesalers call the “cold chain”: the need to keep fish cold from the time it’s caught until it’s served raw or cooked. Cold chain provisions in the law allow for delivery at docks that are unrefrigerated, said Donald Darnall, the Maryland Food Center Authority’s executive director. It is up to each distributor at the market to ensure that deliveries come through the unrefrigerated dock to their places at the market in a way that maintains their required temperatures.
Violations are rare, but they do happen. In 2010, FDA inspectors shut down Congressional Seafood Co. for a few days because of several violations, including refrigeration. Congressional made some changes in their plan and management and, after further inspections, was cleared to reopen.
Darnall said the FDA is unlikely to impose stricter regulations because then it would have to hire more enforcement officers, which it has been reluctant to do.
But even though the market’s refrigeration met requirements, as companies like McDonnell and Congressional expanded their businesses, the cold chain became a more pressing issue, tenants and market officials agreed. That was especially true as distributors’ clients became more global and insisted on a uniform standard of refrigeration to comply not only with the laws, but with their industry protocols as well.
An example would be the Giant grocery store chain, once a regional company based in Landover, MD, that is now owned by the Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold. They want their seafood suppliers certified by the Safe Quality Food Institute; Congressional’s facility meets the institute’s standards, but the former market space did not. The Food Center Authority, which receives no taxpayer funding, did not have the money to invest in a refrigerated dock. Raising such funds, Darnall said, would mean increasing everyone’s rent, including those businesses that didn’t need it.
“There was no way we could continue in an operation like that. I knew we had to develop other avenues,” McManus said.
Moving to new, colder quarters
J. McDonnell’s departure in October 2016, to a 55,000-square-foot warehouse with a refrigeration system that consumes 70 percent less energy than the one at the wholesale market, follows the departure of one its largest competitors, Congressional Seafood. Congressional, along with its sister company, NAFCO, moved in 2015 into an 88,000-square-foot facility that cost nearly $9 million to develop across from the market.
At its new facility, Congressional processes more than 20,000 pounds of fish a day, which it delivers to 750 restaurants in Washington, Baltimore and Richmond.
Jon Pearlman, Congressional’s director of operations, said the company wanted to attain the highest possible food-safety certification to deliver to customers like Safeway and Giant. The certifications come from private, third-party verifiers, who inspect the facilities and deem them to meet the large company’s standards. They couldn’t achieve it without a consistent cold chain, something they worried might one day become mandatory.
“We can account for the temperature of the product from the time that we receive it until the time that it gets to customer’s door. That’s something that everyone is going to have to face, and the old market would not allow us to do,” he said. “We definitely saw the writing on the wall that this was going to become a mandatory issue. We always try to stay ahead of the curve. The biggest thing that the old seafood market just could not do was have a closed dock, and that was our number one priority when we built this place.”
Of the 18 seafood dealers in the wholesale seafood market at Jessup when McManus started, only five remain, though managers expect to fill two vacated spots soon and will be renovating the market.
While he can’t predict what will happen next at the FDA, McManus said he invested in the new facility, even if the expense, which he said was in the “multi-millions,” was painful.
“The responsibility to run a good organization is much different from what it was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago,” McManus said. “As long as you build the equipment with flexibility, you will be able to meet any requirement.”
Rona Kobell, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a former writer at the Baltimore Sun.