Video: Is your favorite seafood toxic?

  1. Transcript of: Is your favorite seafood toxic?

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back at 7:43. And this morning on TODAY INVESTIGATES , could your favorite seafood be dangerous? Wait until you see where some of it comes from. NBC 's Jeff Rossen is here with what he found out. Morning to you, Jeff .

    JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Hi, Meredith. Not to break your heart, I know you love seafood .

    VIEIRA: I do.

    ROSSEN: But most of it -- and even though we eat a lot of it in this country -- most of it doesn't even come from here. In fact, 80 percent of fish and 90 percent of the shrimp actually come from overseas. This morning our TODAY investigation has found some of your seafood may have toxic chemicals, causing serious health issues. Sauteed, fried or fresh, we love seafood . Appetizing, for sure. Until you see where some of it comes from. This video shot by a US advocacy group shows dirty sewage water used to raise seafood in Vietnam , the fish pumped with toxic antibiotics and banned drugs just to keep them alive, boosting production and driving down costs. Would you consider this a public health threat?

    Mr. RON SPARKS (Commissioner, Alabama Department of Agriculture): Oh, absolutely.

    ROSSEN: Ron Sparks is the commissioner of Alabama 's Department of Agriculture , one of the only states testing imported seafood for these dangerous drugs like chloramphenicol, nitrofurans and malachite green, chemicals so toxic to humans they're banned in all food.

    Mr. SPARKS: In some cases, between 40 and 50 percent of our tests will come out positive.

    ROSSEN: That's a disturbing number.

    Mr. SPARKS: It is to me. That's why we continue to test.

    ROSSEN: State tests in Oklahoma , Mississippi and Georgia show similar

    results, all targeting seafood with the worst record of contamination: shrimp, catfish, crab meat and tilapia imported to the US from China , Taiwan , Vietnam , Malaysia and Indonesia , in many cases, officials say, ending up in our country's restaurants and grocery stores .

    Mr. JOE BASILE (Seafood Chemist, Alabama Department of Agriculture): Unfortunately, consumers can't tell if any of these compounds are in their seafood . You can't smell it, can't taste it, you can't cook it out.

    ROSSEN: So how dangerous are these chemicals? Scientists say over time eating this tainted seafood could cause anemia, cancer, even birth defects. The FDA says the risks are long term and not fully understood. While the FDA is responsible for keeping the nation's food supply safe, our TODAY investigation found it tests less than 2 percent of imported seafood .

    Mr. SPARKS: They're not going to get caught. I mean, they're sending tons of seafood to this country. And if you only catch a small percentage of it, why would they stop?

    ROSSEN: Does the FDA need to do more?

    Mr. SPARKS: I would certainly suggest that the FDA do more.

    ROSSEN: And it's an ongoing problem. While government tests show US seafood is free of these contaminants, even back in 2007 this congressional subcommittee report found " seafood imports remain especially problematic," and the " FDA lacks sufficient resources and authority to ensure food safety ." The FDA declined to speak with us on camera, but said it's doing the best it can, targeting its testing on companies and countries that are repeat offenders and rejecting their products until they're proven safe. Yet it keeps happening. In fact, according to FDA test results obtained by NBC News , this year alone 8 percent of seafood it tested from China was tainted, and from Taiwan 16 percent of seafood tested was tainted as well. Is that acceptable to you?

    Mr. JOHN CONNELLY (President, National Fisheries Institute): Any use of unauthorized antibiotics is unacceptable.

    ROSSEN: John Connelly runs a trade group representing the imported seafood industry. The FDA says seafood from overseas is still coming in with the toxic chemicals, it's been a problem for years, and it's not stopping. So what are the importers doing to stop it?

    Mr. CONNELLY: I'm just saying, any unauthorized use of antibiotics is inappropriate. The vast majority of seafood coming in does not exhibit any kind of problems.

    ROSSEN: You're claiming that no tainted seafood is making it from overseas onto our dinner tables?

    Mr. CONNELLY: I'm saying that any use of unauthorized antibiotics is inappropriate.

    ROSSEN: He says most importers follow the rules and this problem is being overblown as a trade issue. He says this video of polluted fish ponds and raw sewage is misleading. Instead, he gave us his own video of picturesque fish farms in Vietnam . But it keeps happening year after year after year. Why?

    Mr. CONNELLY: Unfortunately, there are bad actors in every industry.

    ROSSEN: But when you buy seafood , chances are you don't know where it comes from. While federal law requires grocery stores to disclose its country of origin ...

    Offscreen Voice #1: Where's the tilapia from?

    Offscreen Voice #2: China .

    ROSSEN: ...in restaurants, where most of us eat our seafood , it's a different story. Most states don't require them to tell you where it's from at all.

    Unidentified Woman #1: That's awful. I'm totally in shock.

    Unidentified Man: We label everything. Why wouldn't we label our seafood ? Why wouldn't we label our fish?

    Unidentified Woman #2: Most people do try and eat more fish because it is healthier for you, and you want to know where it's from.

    ROSSEN: Would you support legislation where we would know, no matter where we go, where our seafood is coming from?

    Mr. CONNELLY: Studies do not indicate that Americans are deeply interested in the source of their fish or other proteins.

    ROSSEN: As a consumer, don't I have a right to know where my seafood is coming from, especially knowing what we know now?

    Mr. CONNELLY: I think that consumers should feel comfortable that FDA does a good job.

    ROSSEN: But some officials say until more seafood is tested, consumers are at risk.

    Mr. BASILE: It is a cat and mouse game. They quite honestly don't care about the health of United States citizens .

    ROSSEN: Some officials say this isn't just a health issue. American fishermen who play by the rules say they're losing their jobs because they can't compete with importers who are cutting the corners and selling their tainted seafood much cheaper here in the US. You know, Meredith , I don't mean to scare everybody. Most of the seafood coming in, even from overseas, is safe. The problem is, even in restaurants, you don't know, unless you ask your server, and even then they're under no obligation to tell you. The key is in grocery stores to read the labels and see which country it's coming from.

By
updated 11/17/2010 12:56:15 PM ET 2010-11-17T17:56:15

The Senate has voted to move forward on a far-reaching food safety bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration more power to prevent foodborne illnesses.

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The chamber voted 74-25 to proceed with the bill. Supporters needed 60 votes because Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, had objected, saying the legislation's $1.4 billion cost isn't paid for.

The bill would give the FDA more authority to recall tainted products, increase inspections of food processors and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe in the wake of outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs and produce that have sickened hundreds.

The House passed a similar bill over a year ago.

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Also on Wednesday, the Senate blocked a measure designed to reduce wage disparities between men and women. The 58-41 vote to take up the Paycheck Fairness Act fell short of the 60 needed to overcome GOP opposition.

Story: 5 ways the food safety bill would affect you

Civil rights groups, labor leaders and the Obama administration all supported the bill, which would make employers prove that any disparities in wages are job-related and not sex-based. Republicans and business groups said the bill would expose employers to more litigation by removing limits on punitive and compensatory damage awards.

Whether the food safety bill could make it to the president's desk during the brief lame-duck congressional session is unclear since the House passed a different version of the legislation in 2009. Even if the Senate passes the bill, the two pieces of legislation would have to be quickly reconciled before the end of this session sometime after Thanksgiving.

Supporters are still negotiating with two senators expected to offer amendments to the bill — Sen. Jon Tester, D. Mont., who is concerned the legislation will be burdensome on small farms, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who plans to offer an amendment to limit the use of the plastics chemical bisphenol-A.

Tester's amendment, which would exempt some smaller farms from the bill's requirements, has gained support among grassroots advocates for buying food produced locally. While the bill is designed to give the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over the nation's food supply, supporters of the Tester amendment say it could bankrupt some small farms that don't have the means to comply with new standards the bill would impose.

Those standards could include registering food safety plans with the FDA and documenting efforts to show food is not contaminated as it is produced.

Food safety advocates have objected to some of the exemptions, saying Tester's concerns are overblown and the size of the farm is not as important as the safety of the food.

Feinstein's amendment would ban BPA, a chemical used to harden plastics in some food containers and hundreds of other household items, from some products. Some scientists and activists who oppose the use of the chemical have said it can interfere with development and possibly cause cancer.

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Feinstein has insisted on offering the amendment to the bill, and negotiations on the issue have been ongoing for months. She issued a statement Wednesday saying the faces opposition from industry.

"We are still trying to work out details of an agreement, but chemical industry lobbyists are doing everything in their power to block any progress on the issue," Feinstein said.

President Barack Obama issued a statement in support of the Senate food safety bill Tuesday, saying the legislation would address "long-standing challenges" of the FDA by helping producers prevent foodborne outbreaks and giving the government more tools to keep food safe.

Recent outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency has struggled to contain and trace contaminated products.

Currently, the FDA does not have the authority to order a recall and must negotiate recalls with the affected producers. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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