Farmed in China's Foul Waters, Imported Fish Treated With Drugs

Zhu Zhiqiu, left, and a worker at his catfish farm in southern China prepare to feed the fish.
Zhu Zhiqiu, left, and a worker at his catfish farm in southern China prepare to feed the fish. (By Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 6, 2007

WUGONG LAKE, China -- Perched above the banks of the catfish farm he owns is Zhu Zhiqiu's secret weapon for breeding healthy fish: the medicine shed. Inside are iodine bottles, vitamin packets and Chinese herbal concoctions that he claims substitute for antibiotics.

Zhu's fish farm, in a village on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, sends about 2.7 million catfish fillets each year to the United States through an importer in Virginia. Despite his best efforts -- he has dozens of employees clearing trash from the water each day, and the fish are fed sacks of fish meal more expensive than rice -- Zhu's fish sometimes get sick. Then he brings out the drugs.

"It's standard practice," he said. "Everyone uses them to keep fish healthy."

Chinese exporters like him have seized much of the U.S. market, accounting for 22 percent of all imports, because their fish are cheaper to raise.

The fish are being raised, however, in a country whose waterways are an ongoing environmental problem, tainted by sewage, pesticides, heavy metals and other pollutants. The situation is worst in the southern half of the country, where Zhu's farm is and where industrial runoff accumulates.

Like other fish farmers throughout the world, catfish growers in China turn to a variety of potions. But the extent to which they use traditional Chinese medicine, which cannot be tested for as easily in the Western countries that import fish, is unusual. Zhu claims to use only safe and legal drugs, but it was clear that some of his competitors have not been so scrupulous.

The competitors spike the water with banned substances to keep their farmed fish alive. Batches of seafood traded at the Shanghai fish market this week, for example, carried the tell-tale greenish tinge of malachite green, a disinfectant powder that has been banned in China for five years because it is a suspected carcinogen but is still commonly used.

Illegal substances like malachite green keep showing up in Chinese seafood shipped to the United States, provoking a partial U.S. ban on such shipments last week. It was the latest development in an ongoing global awakening about the risks of Chinese-made products, from toys tainted with lead paint to pet-food ingredients containing a deadly industrial chemical.

Using illegal disinfectants and antibiotics "is a lazy way of raising fish," Zhu said. "But it is extremely effective."

Many of the "Southern-style" catfish fillets on U.S. grocery shelves these days are indeed from the south -- of China.

The Chinese government's own reports express alarm that many rivers in this region are so contaminated with heavy metals from industrial byproducts and pesticides, including DDT, that they are too dangerous to touch, much less raise fish in.

In the city of Wuxi this month, for example, blue green algae, exacerbated by factories dumping waste, infested several nearby lakes that provide drinking water to the point where the government had to shut off the water supply. Outside of Qingdao, pollutants from nearby liquor and leather factories have turned streams a murky gray. And in Nanjing, the river that cuts through the city is full of urban trash such as twisted metal and clothing.

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