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Catfish With a Side of Scombroid

16 Jul

catfish.jpgJuly 15, 2007

Op-Ed Contributor – by Taras Grescoe


WHEN it comes to seafood safety in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is the thin red line between the public and the fish farmers of the world. While the United States Department of Agriculture has the mandate for certifying meat, the F.D.A. is responsible for inspecting imported seafood. And although it oversees the safety of 80 percent of all food products, the F.D.A. gets only about 35 percent of the overall food safety budget.

That is not only a shame, it may also be a real danger for anybody who has a weakness for barbecued shrimp, blackened catfish or sautéed scallops.

Every year about 6.6 million tons of seafood are imported into the United States from 160 different countries. That’s a lot of fish: the frozen shrimp alone would make a shrimp cocktail the size of the Sears Tower. Yet the Food and Drug Administration has only 85 inspectors working primarily with seafood.

If you want to spend a sobering half hour, go to the import alerts section of the administration’s Web site. There you will find claw crab meat from Indonesia rejected because of filth (meaning it may have carried rodent hairs or parts of disease-carrying insects), shrimp from Thailand rejected because of salmonella (in fact, 40 percent of rejections for salmonella were for shrimp) and tuna from Vietnam turned back for histamines (responsible for scombroid poisoning). Most troubling is the number of rejections because of banned veterinary drugs and antibiotics like chloramphenicol, a cause of aplastic anemia, and nitrofurans, which are suspected carcinogens.

In May, 48 seafood shipments from China were rejected. According to the nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, of the 860,000 separate seafood shipments imported into the United States, a mere 1.34 percent were physically inspected and only 0.59 percent ever made it into a lab for more rigorous testing. To put this in perspective: if the F.D.A. were responsible for inspecting that 108-story tower of shrimp, they would barely make it past the second floor before calling it quits.

The European Union has a fully functioning food safety system, but looking at its food alerts Web site is sobering for another reason: it gives you an idea of how much unsafe seafood the F.D.A. isn’t catching. The European Union physically inspects at least 20 percent of all imported seafood, and when a product is proving problematic — when they’re finding too much salmonella in Vietnamese shrimp, for example — inspection increases to 100 percent, until the problem is resolved. Sometimes the situation gets so bad that seafood has to be embargoed until the exporting country brings its standards up to snuff. When seafood from Pakistan was proving particularly unsafe, the union banned Pakistani seafood for several months.

But banning certain imports doesn’t always do the job. Port shopping, a practice in which frozen seafood rejected in one port is simply shipped to jurisdictions with less rigorous standards of inspection, is not uncommon. Indeed, if you’re a shady seafood dealer trying to unload a container of dodgy shrimp or tilapia, chances are 98 in 100 it will make it into the United States.

The F.D.A. just doesn’t have enough money to do its job properly. In a 2002 audit, the Government Accountability Office found that the F.D.A. was able to inspect about 100 foreign seafood companies in 10 countries a year to ensure their processing plants were up to standard. (In any given year, more than 13,000 firms export seafood to the United States.) In 2003, they received $211,000 to do these inspections, and yet this year, Congress has cut that budget to zero. Though there are inspectors at the state level, only Southern states like Alabama and Louisiana, which have domestic catfish and shrimp industries to protect, regularly screen foreign imports.

Part of the problem is keeping up with the tremendous growth in seafood imports. The spread of the so-called blue revolution, as fish farming is known, has been explosive in Asia, particularly in China. Last year, China supplied America with 75,000 tons of farmed shrimp — beating out Thailand as the world’s leading shrimp exporter — and now supplies 22 percent of the nation’s seafood.

For many people, this year’s melamine scandal, in which as many as 39,000 dogs and cats were killed or sickened after consuming pet food bulked up with a toxic plasticizer, ultimately traced to wheat gluten imported from China, was a wake-up call about the country’s involvement in the global food supply. But China’s stunning embrace of the blue revolution has clearly come at a cost. Water shortages and pollution are endemic in China — only 45 percent of the population has access to sewage-treatment facilities — so to raise millions of pounds of disease-prone fish to harvest size, China has had to lay on the chemicals.

In 2006, 60 percent of the seafood that was refused entry into the United States because of veterinary drug residues, including antibiotics like chloramphenicol and nitrofurans, came from China — a country where nine separate ministries inspect food, but there is no overall food safety law. China is aware of the problem: last week, its former food and drug regulator was executed for taking bribes from eight companies and approving fake drugs. And Chinese health officials now blame pollution and pesticides for cancer, which has become a leading cause of death in the country.

The Food and Drug Administration is catching on to the problem that China presents. Late last month, the administration announced it was banning five kinds of seafood imported from China: shrimp, catfish, eel, basa (a kind of catfish) and dace (a carp).

But focusing on certain foods from China is nothing more than a stop-gap: the United States imports millions of pounds of seafood from India, Indonesia, Thailand and other Asian countries, which all have their own problems with banned drugs and water quality. In fact, an F.D.A. study analyzing samples from fish farms found that the salmonella frequently detected in Asia-farmed fish came from fecal bacteria in the grow-out ponds. The fish, in other words, were bathing in human and animal feces.

Banning all fish from Asia is clearly not a solution. But American consumers need to insist on high standards from not only their fish suppliers, but also from the officials responsible for inspecting the seafood they eat. And as the thin red line between the public and the world’s fish farmers, the F.D.A. simply needs more money to do its job — money it hasn’t been getting from Congress.

In the meantime, rather than swearing off fish altogether, remember that excellent seafood is being produced domestically, often in ecologically sound ways, often at only a slight premium over imported prices. American aquaculturists are farming organic shrimp in the desert, growing tilapia in indoor tanks and reseeding the Chesapeake Bay with oysters. Now is the perfect time to splurge on quality.

Taras Grescoe is the author of the forthcoming “Bottomfeeder: A Seafood Lover’s Journey to the End of the Food Chain.”

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