Check the label: 80% of US fish imported, less than 1% inspected, most loaded with antibiotics etc.
November 6, 2007
Many Americans would be surprised to learn that 80 percent of seafood sold in the country is imported. The FDA inspects and tests less than 1 percent of it. When the FDA does inspect, it frequently finds the fish is unhealthy and filled with banned chemicals, making it unhealthy for consumers.
The FDA, which has pages of records showing rejected shipments, has turned away catfish from China because it found traces of veterinary drugs; swordfish from Vietnam because it was poisonous; and snapper from Malaysia because it was filthy.
Researchers said the chemicals and antibiotics found may not make you sick immediately, but eaten over a long period they pose a significant health risk.
Avoiding foreign seafood may be a difficult task for consumers because almost all the seafood sold in supermarkets comes from developing nations, like Indonesia, China and Costa Rica.
“I don’t think people have any idea how much imported seafood’s coming into this country,” said Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks. “If it’s from a foreign country, I’d be very cautious. I wouldn’t eat it.”
States Taking Charge
Alabama is one of a few states that have relied less on the federal government and have come up with their own comprehensive state inspection programs.
Alabama rejects 50 percent to 60 percent of all fish imports.
Lab tests routinely detect antibiotics, which are banned for use in food in the United States. Some foreign countries use the antibiotics to treat fish raised in crowded conditions, where bacteria, viruses and parasites can breed.
One of the things often found in imported fish is a fungicide called malachite green, which is illegal to use in food in the United States because studies show it can causes cancer and birth defects.
Sparks said he has seen firsthand how tainted foreign seafood can be. He’s traveled to Vietnam and witnessed fish farmed in sewage. In response, he’s ordered extensive fish of all imported fish to this state.
Lab testers said even when farmers in nations like China have shipment rejected for an illegal chemical, they simply switch to another harmful chemical.
“They know it’s illegal. They know it hurts people, but they do it anyway,” said Joe Basile, of the Alabama Department of Agriculture.
But not all states have such a vigorous program like Alabama’s so even some stores have taken extra steps to protect consumers.
Retail giant Wal-Mart, for one, says it is working directly with shrimp farms in Thailand to clean them up and ensure imported shrimp in its stores are safe.
But, a consumer safety advocate said the FDA has not done enough to protect consumers.
“Consumers may be getting a dose of antibiotics with their seafood dinner and that’s something the government should stop,” said Caroline Smith Dewaal, of the Center for Science and Public Interest.
Dewaal believes the exporters are playing a game of cat and mouse with the United States.
“It clearly means that these importers don’t think they’re going to get caught,” Dewaal said.
In addition to safety issues, the flood of foreign fish has had a massive impact on domestic fish producers.
Fish farmers have trouble keeping up with the low prices foreign farmers offer.
“We can compete with anyone in the world if we have a fair playing field. But [when] you’ve got an unfair playing field. nobody can compete,” said catfish farmer Butch Wilson, who has been in the business nearly 20 years.
The government proposals being announced today will cover everything from foods to toys and even medicine.
The move is a major shift for the Bush administration, which has always believed in limiting the government’s power, but the issue has become too difficult to ignore.
The White House says it will announce 14 short- and long-term fixes, including giving the Consumer Product Safety Commission the power to inspect foreign factories.
Currently, the commission can’t get involved until products reach U.S. ports.
Also, the FDA would get the authority to issue mandatory recalls. Right now the agency must negotiate voluntary recalls with manufacturers, which can be a time-consuming process.
And the White House also will propose creating a government certification program in which the FDA and commission would give their stamps of approval to products that meet certain safety and quality standards.
Increasing the fines that companies pay when their products put consumers at risk is part of the plan.
Of course, congressional Democrats have proposed import legislation of their own. And some see the administration’s announcements as a signal the two sides will be able to work together to bring about changes.
USDA Country of Origin Labeling
On May 13, 2002, President Bush signed into law the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, more commonly known as the 2002 Farm Bill. One of its many initiatives requires country of origin labeling for beef, lamb, pork, fish, perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts. On January 27, 2004, President Bush signed Public Law 108-199 which delays the implementation of mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2006. On November 10, 2005, President Bush signed Public Law 109-97, which delays the implementation for all covered commodities (“covered commodity” is defined as muscle cuts of beef, lamb, and pork; ground beef, ground lamb, and ground pork; farm-raised fish and shellfish; wild fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities; and peanuts) except wild and farm-raised and shellfish until September 30, 2008. As described in the legislation, program implementation is the responsibility of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
The 2002 Act states, with few exceptions, a retailer may use a “United States country of origin” label if the product is from an animal that was exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States. In the case of farm-raised seafood, the product must be from fish hatched, raised, harvested, and processed in the United States. For wild seafood, it must be harvested in waters of, and processed in, the United States. Also, the label must distinguish between farm-raised and wild harvest seafood products. Peanuts and perishable agricultural commodities must be exclusively produced in the United States to carry that label. This Act gives new labeling responsibility to USDA for the country-of-origin labeling of fish, fruits, vegetables, and peanuts.
To convey country-of-origin information to consumers, retailers may use a label, stamp, mark, placard, or other clear and visible sign on the covered commodity, or on the package, display, holding unit, or bin containing the commodity at the final point of consumption. Food-service establishments—such as restaurants, bars, food stands, and similar facilities—are exempt.