Filthy seafood infected with bacteria or tainted with drugs and antibiotics banned in the U.S. is finding its way onto the plates of 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.
Only about 2 percent of imported seafood is inspected, and only 0.1 percent is tested for banned drug residues, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. That's especially alarming because 80 percent of the seafood in America is imported, according to the agency.
The FDA says it can't say for sure how many of the samples pass or fail.
But a News21 analysis of FDA import-refusal data reveals an unappetizing portrait. In more than half of cases when seafood is rejected, the fish has been deemed 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.
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“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.”
Besides being perishable, seafood is especially risky because of the sheer volume that is imported compared to other goods.
People who eat seafood that is raw or undercooked are especially vulnerable to bacteria that may be lurking. Imported seafood was believed to be the culprit in a 2007 outbreak of ciguatera fish poisoning . Ten people were sickened after eating contaminated seafood from two restaurants in Missouri.
FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said the agency is doing what it can to ensure the safety of imported seafood by using “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.
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“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.
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Microbiologist Michael Doyle, director of food safety at the University of Georgia, said more scrutiny would improve food safety for consumers, but it’s not very realistic since the FDA doesn’t have the manpower to inspect all the shipments.Story: Flood of food imported to U.S., but only 2 percent inspected
Production standards lower than in the U.S.
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,” said Doyle.
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.”
Banned antibiotics in imported fish
Alabama, which is home to the country’s second-largest domestic catfish industry, has found significant levels of banned antibiotics in foreign-raised catfish.
Scientists for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries 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.
“The U.S. is a heavily reliant import country,” said Gurley, the attorney representing the Chinese fish exporters. “We don’t have the capacity to produce all the products that we need.”
By the numbers: FDA in brief
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 U.S. Department of Agriculture'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. To find out where seafood is from, consumers should check that packaging for country-of-origin labeling or ask the seafood vendor.
But Lorenzo Juarez of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquaculture Program said that’s not practical. There are not enough fish in the wild to sustain global demand, he said, adding that a better approach would be to encourage aquaculture production in the U.S.
Corrigan, of 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.