FDA Halts Imports Of Some Chinese Seafood

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration yesterday banned the import of five types of farm-raised fish and shrimp from China because they have been found to contain unsafe drugs, some of which can cause cancer.

The species include catfish, shrimp, eels, basa -- a kind of catfish -- and the carp-like dace. The FDA is not ordering that the products be pulled out of restaurants or from supermarket shelves but said that all incoming shipments would be stopped immediately. The chemicals found in the food "could cause health problems if consumed over a long period of time," said David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection.

The order follows several months of concerns over food and drug imports from China that came to light with the discovery of tainted pet food in March, which led to manufacturer recalls of more than 100 brands and numerous pet deaths. Food from China meant for humans -- such as mushrooms, plums and scallops -- has been blocked from import by the FDA, which rejects about 200 shipments per month from China.

"There is no imminent threat to the public," Acheson said. He added that the Chinese government has been working to improve inspection of its farmed seafood exports but not enough to prevent yesterday's FDA action. There have been no recorded illnesses from the tainted Chinese fish, the FDA said. The drugs found in the imported fish were just above detectable levels, the agency said.

Chinese manufacturers must clear numerous FDA hurdles involving third-party inspections before their fish will be allowed in the United States, the agency said.

China is the world's largest fisher and second-largest fish exporter to the United States, after Cana da. Shrimp is the most popular imported fish in the United States, making up 34 percent of the market in 2004, according to the most recent statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Last year, the United States imported 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp, 150 million pounds of which came from China, according to the Department of Agriculture. The total value of U.S. imports of Chinese shrimp last year was $331 million, the USDA said.

Catfish is the fifth-most-popular American fish. It fueled economic growth in the Mississippi Delta until recent years, when the cheaper Asian catfish began undercutting the delta's hold on the market, though the United States still retains a large lead. Last year, the United States imported 12 million pounds of catfish from China while producing 565 million pounds of its own.

The potential toxins found in fish targeted by the FDA include a chemical called malachite green, which is used to treat fungal infections in fish, Acheson said, and has caused cancer in laboratory animals. Fluoroquinolones, also found in the Chinese fish, can increase antibiotic resistance in humans, the FDA said. The chemicals are often used to battle fish diseases caused by China's polluted waterways, fish experts said.

The FDA had already barred individual Chinese manufacturers found to be exporting tainted fish, as the problems date to 2001. But heightened FDA inspections over the past several months have found that as much as 15 percent of the newly halted seafood contained the harmful chemicals, leading to the countrywide ban.

"We don't know how much of this product is in the country," said Margaret O'K. Glavin, the FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

Because of the low cost of farming and processing, the West has increasingly looked to China for food and drugs in addition to manufactured goods. The United States imported $2.3 billion worth of agricultural products from China last year, compared with $133 million in 1980.

The FDA action was good news for U.S. catfish farmers, largely based in the South. U.S. catfish production was down 12 percent in 2006 from 2003. "We're facing a lot of competition in fish," Roger Barlow, president of the Mississippi-based Catfish Institute, said.

Barlow said that catfish farmers have been dinged in recent years by imports of Chinese basa, which are cheaper. In 2002, at the urging of U.S. fish farmers, Congress declared that Vietnamese basa -- largely raised in the Mekong basin -- could not be labeled as the same kind of channel catfish raised in the delta.

"Our industry wants to thank the administration and our delegation for doing what's right," Barlow said of yesterday's ban.

Alabama and Mississippi, two of the largest catfish-producing states, banned sales of Chinese catfish last month after tests found two antibiotics prohibited by the FDA.

"Today's revelation appears to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to contaminated and dangerous Chinese goods coming in to the U.S.," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Tension over the tainted food marred trade talks between Washington and Beijing last month in China. This month, China said it would overhaul its food inspection rules, some of which it said were dated.

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