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.
Chinese food producers' reliance on chemicals, whether as a means to increase prices of their wares by tricking importers or as a way to inexpensively keep food fresh, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months.
Zhu says that all the quality-control tests of his fish have shown no illegal substances and that the traditional Chinese medicines are safer because they are normally used to treat human illnesses.
Instead of using antibiotics, Zhu regularly gives his fish Gandankang, a Tibetan blend that people take for liver and gall bladder problems. He also sometimes uses a "magic grass pill" made from a root used to treat diarrhea or dysentery and help stop miscarriages in humans. The claim that giving fish traditional Chinese medicine is safe is backed up by China Catfish Institute, a research group affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture.
But Cao Yulin, general manager of the Jiangsu Baolong Group, which exports catfish and uses some herbal medicines in his own fish farms, said that even traditional Chinese medicines can pose a threat. While in general they are safer than other chemicals because there is less residue, he said, some smaller farmers are not well trained and may not prepare the medicines -- some of which need to be boiled or mixed -- properly.
Tom Sherman, vice president of marketing for Icelandic USA of Newport News, Va., which imports catfish from Zhu's farm through an exporter, said he was not aware that traditional Chinese medicine was used in raising the fish the company brings to the United States.
"I don't think that would be approved by the company," Sherman said.
In May, Alabama and Mississippi, which have their own catfish industries, stopped some grocery store sales of Chinese catfish because some contained low levels of antibiotics. The action came nearly two months before a ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Health officials in the United States and China worry that antibiotics could contribute to resistance in humans when ingested over long periods of time, making antibiotics less effective in the event of a serious illness.
From the Chinese perspective, however, that Alabama and Mississippi also have their own catfish-growing industries is not a coincidence. The Chinese government says that the United States' partial ban was unjustified and that shipments should not be "automatically held and rejected indiscriminately." It also accused the United States of having its own seafood quality problems. The strong reaction has triggered worries of a tit-for-tat trade war between the countries.
"There are people in the United States who are propagandizing that Chinese catfish is not safe. The cause of this is that Chinese catfish exports are increasing, and they worry about the competition," said Wang Liang, secretary general of the China Catfish Institute.
Chinese imports make up about 5 percent of all catfish sold in the United States, but that portion is growing quickly. In 2004, China sent fewer than 100 containers, at 20 tons each. By 2005, 200 containers were sent, and in 2006, 500 were shipped, Wang said. Meanwhile, concerns about pollution's effect on the farmed fish have mounted.
Even the Chinese government's own reports are damning, describing how industrial and urban sewage forces farmers to use chemicals to keep the fish alive.
"Environmental change is a major factor" driving fish farmers to use drugs, said Wu Tingting, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences.
"It is related to the dirty water from the factories," Tingting said. "So they use drugs to try to kill algae, to change the water quality."
The Chinese catfish industry was born in the late 1980s after government researchers acquired fingerlings of U.S. catfish and began promoting it as a possible export industry. Catfish breeding centers were set up in a half-dozen provinces along the eastern shore. In Jiangxi province where Zhu lives, familiar fisheries were bought out and consolidated to focus on catfish exports back in 2005.
Zhu's is one of eight fisheries in the area that sells to the Xiajiang Agricultural Industry Development, a processing company that fillets and freezes the fish. It is a high-risk but lucrative industry for the region, with a profit margin that can be as much as 40 percent for farmers and 30 percent for processors.
Liu Tianyuan, factory manager for the processing company, said profit would be even greater, even 20 percent more, if the plants were not so concerned about quality. He said the company spends a lot of money each year training its farmers on how to best use drugs safely and tests each batch of fish for illegal contaminants three times during its seven- to eight-month growing cycle.
Xiajiang sells the fish to Icelandic USA, which breads the fillets and sells them to food-service companies or through its own retail brand as "Southern-Style Biscuit Battered Catfish Fillets" at grocery stores.
In a statement, Icelandic said it supports the FDA restrictions and that it ensures quality by boarding vessels with its seafood, and checking the farms and production facilities. All of its suppliers are "required to test their products for all banned substances by an official certified laboratory," it said.
Meanwhile, catfish farmers like Zhu remain anxious. He has invested his life savings, about $650,000, in the fishery and is not sure what he would do if his catfish were blocked by the United States. All he can do, he said, is wait and hope the United States will "be fair."
Zhu should know soon. The ships carrying the next batch of catfish from Wugong are scheduled to arrive in Norfolk on July 18.
Staff researcher Crissie Ding contributed to this report.