By Nicole Gilbert
Filthy seafood infected with bacteria or tainted with drugs and antibiotics banned in the U.S. is finding its way onto the plates of health-conscious Americans, according to state and federal officials, consumer advocates, academics and food safety experts.
The U.S. imported more than 17.6 million tons of seafood in the last decade, according to a News21 analysis of import data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
About This Story
This story — part of a project called “How Safe Is Your Food?” — was done for the News21 program based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
The program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami to encourage excellence and innovation in college journalism.
This is FCIR’s second collaboration with ASU student journalists. FCIR published the first, “Stateless in the Dominican Republic,” from Aug. 22 to Sept. 12.
Only about 1 percent is inspected, and only 0.1 percent is tested for banned drug residues, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
More than 51 percent of the seafood that was inspected and turned away from ports was filthy, meaning it was spoiled or contained physical abnormalities, or it was contaminated with a foodborne pathogen. About 20 percent of those cases involved salmonella, according to the News21 analysis of FDA import refusal data.
“You’re looking at fresh and frozen seafood that’s being turned away at the border by FDA because it’s decomposed and infected with salmonella,” said Zach Corrigan of the Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy organization.
Filthy fish products may contain dirt, insect fragments and rodent hair, Corrigan said, adding, “I don’t think people realize when they’re eating their dinners every night … so much of that is getting through without any sort of inspection.”
Consumers can protect themselves from most bacterial contamination by cooking seafood properly, said Spencer Garrett, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory. NOAA’s oversight ranges from daily weather forecasts to fisheries management.
But they’re taking significant chances if they eat raw seafood, he said.
FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said the agency is doing what it can to ensure the safety of imported seafood by using what she called “preventative controls.” These include reviewing companies’ safety plans, written documents that address how the food operator will deal with safety hazards at various points in the production process.
“The volume of imports is so large that it is not feasible to rely on surveillance at the border as a primary food safety control,” she said in an email, referring to the FDA’s low inspection rate.
Microbiologist Michael Doyle, director of food safety at the University of Georgia, said more inspections would improve food safety for consumers, but it’s not very realistic.
The FDA, he said, doesn’t have the manpower to inspect all shipments. “It’s not a very effective way of ensuring the safety of our food from other countries,” he said.
Another way to protect consumers from tainted food imports is to inspect food processing facilities – catching problems at the source. But here again, the FDA falls short, Doyle said. To export to the U.S., foreign processing companies just register online with the FDA. Most never see an inspector.
Between fiscal 2005 and 2010, the FDA inspected an average of less than one-half of one percent of an estimated 17,000 foreign processing facilities each year, according to the GAO.
According to the News21 analysis, shrimp, salmon and tuna were the top three imported seafood products in both weight and value in the past decade. Much of it is farm-raised in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, where production standards are typically lower than in the U.S.
Untreated animal manure and human waste are used as feed in shrimp farms and tilapia farms in China and Thailand, Doyle said. These “organic” materials also find their way into farms through pollution from sewage.
“They feel their level of sanitation is adequate and we don’t,” Doyle said.
To prevent the spread of bacteria and disease, some foreign fish farms put U.S.-banned antibiotics into their fishmeal, said Brett C. Hall, deputy commissioner for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.
“In Vietnam and other foreign countries, there are extreme limitations regarding a desirable water supply,” he said. “In order to grow fish in contaminated water they would use antibiotics to keep the fish alive.”
Alabama, which is home to the country’s second-largest domestic catfish industry, has found significant levels of banned antibiotics in foreign-raised catfish.
Alabama scientists tested 258 samples of catfish and a related species from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia from 2002 to 2010. Forty-four percent of samples tested positive for an antibiotic used to treat pneumonia and tuberculosis. The FDA banned the same antibiotic for use in produce and fish in 1997.
Attorney John Gurley, who represents Chinese catfish, shrimp, crawfish and salmon companies, criticized the Alabama tests, saying they were done on behalf of U.S. aquaculture farmers who are primarily interested in reducing competition from overseas.
Still, the test results raised questions about U.S.-banned drugs that may be used in foreign fish farms. Aquaculture farmers can buy hazardous chemicals over the counter in China, said Ted McNulty, who heads the Arkansas Agriculture Department’s Aquaculture Division.
“Farmers can use chemicals like malachite green. It’s a carcinogen, it’s a fungicide … it’s a real health issue,” he said of the chemical, which is banned in the U.S.
Food & Water Watch also is concerned about China’s overall lack of effective food safety regulation. In a June report, the organization states: “China’s labyrinthine food safety system lacks the capacity, authority and will to ensure the safety of food for Chinese or American consumers.”
Despite the concerns, the U.S. continues to import large amounts of seafood.
Between 1995 and 2005, seafood imports increased 65 percent and shrimp imports increased 95 percent, according to a Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch 2007 report.
Today, 80 percent of American seafood is imported, according to the GAO. China and Thailand together account for 36 percent of imported fish products.
“The U.S. is a heavily reliant import country,” Gurley said. “We don’t have the capacity to produce all the products that we need.”
Gurley said there is little evidence that seafood products from China are dangerous but said Congress should give the FDA the funding to properly inspect all seafood products.
“The U.S. government should dedicate the resources to ensure that food from China, food from Arkansas, wherever, is safe,” he said.
In fiscal 2010, the FDA allocated $1 billion of its $3.2 billion budget for food safety enforcement. The agency has requested more than $300 million for food safety efforts this year, but Congress has yet to approve the agency’s 2011 budget.
The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, passed earlier this year, directs the FDA “to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within the next year and double those inspections every year for the next five,” according to a June FDA report.
The report says “the goal may be attainable the first year” but added that it would be impossible for the FDA to complete the number of foreign food inspections – 19,200 – required in year six “without a substantial increase in resources or a complete overhaul in the way it operates.”
The Case of Catfish
The U.S. seafood industry has long lobbied for tougher regulations on foreign seafood imports. In 2008, domestic catfish producers were successful in getting Congress to move oversight of imported catfish products from the FDA to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees meat and poultry inspection.
Food safety advocates supported the change, hoping it would produce more stringent regulations on all catfish products and force foreign firms to follow American laws and health standards.
But three years after the law was passed, FSIS is still accepting public comments on rules to implement the new law. One of the disagreements is over what species of catfish should be inspected; if catfish are defined broadly, more resources will be needed to carry out inspections.
And even when the disagreements are worked out, the FDA will continue to oversee most seafood imports.
Food safety advocates like Food & Water Watch say consumers are better off avoiding imported seafood altogether and sticking to locally raised fish or fish caught in the wild.
But Lorenzo Juarez of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquaculture Program said that’s not practical.
“There is no more fish from the wild,” he said, and a better approach would be to encourage more domestic aquaculture, which is subject to U.S. standards.
Corrigan’s Food & Water Watch says that’s not good enough.
“We need to find a way to protect people in the United States from seafood and that means more inspections on what’s coming in from our borders,” he said.
News21 reporters Brad Racino and Kerry Davis contributed to this report.