Imported fish with banned chemicals reaching U.S. consumers

Tests show some mislabeled seafood tainted with carcinogens

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Workers in a Vietnamese catfish processing facility prepare a catch for export. In the U.S. testing has found contamination in samples of imported seafood, such as catfish.

Richard Vogel/The Associated Press

Tons of imported fish laced with chemicals banned from the U.S. food supply, including carcinogens, are routinely showing up in this country and, state officials say, winding up on American dinner plates.

Within the last two months, three American fish importers pleaded guilty in Mobile, Ala., to federal felony charges of mislabeling fish and seafood. Their illegal haul included more than 120,000 pounds of imported fish, brought in to Mobile and Seattle, that tested positive for the suspected human carcinogen malachite green and for another antibiotic that U.S. authorities also prohibit for use on fish that people consume.

What’s more, FairWarning found that states including Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have detected evidence of prohibited substances in recent years while screening imported fish.

"I can tell you right off the bat that 40 percent of the imported fish we test is positive for banned drugs that are not safe for human health," said Brett Hall, deputy commissioner for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

The evidence of tainted imported fish reaching U.S. shores and seeping into the marketplace fleshes out a critical Government Accountability Office audit released in April. The year-long investigation found that the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system is so haphazard in inspecting imported fish and seafood— screening less than 1 percent of what comes in  -- that fish tainted with potentially harmful drugs "may be entering U.S. commerce." The report noted that more than 80 percent of the fish Americans eat is imported from other countries.

Banned, Dangerous Chemicals

FairWarning found that the potential problem cited by the GAO is already a reality. In the last year alone, tests by Tennessee authorities detected the banned family of antibiotics known as flouroquinolones in imported basa fish. Georgia found evidence of a flouroquinolone, in imported catfish, though less than officials detected in previous years. Likewise, Arkansas discovered the banned chemical crystal violet, a carcinogen, also in catfish.

Two states that tested imported fish until running out of funds to continue their inspections over the last couple of years, Florida and Alabama, also had been detecting such banned chemicals, which typically are used to fight parasites and disease that threaten farmed fish raised in crowded ponds.

For instance, in 2007 Florida found that 19 percent of the imported catfish it tested were positive for fluoroquinolones. And from 2002 to 2009, Alabama records show, 44 percent of basa fish it tested from Asia tested positive for fluoroquinolone, prompting the state to issue nine "suspensions from sale or movement orders" to take fish off the market.

However, only a handful of states inspect imported fish – mainly ones trying to protect local fishing industries from what they regard as unfair foreign competition. The others rely on the FDA to protect consumers, despite the documented flaws in the FDA’s inspections.

 As a result, there is ample evidence that imported fish with banned drug residues is getting into U.S. supermarkets and restaurants, even though there is no reliable estimate of the quantity.

“I think consumers have and are consuming it," said Ted McNulty, director of the Aquaculture Division of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. 

For its part, the FDA says that the presence of banned drugs in imported fish "is a risk we're actively trying to manage" and the agency defends the job it is doing in keeping tainted fish imports out of the U.S. “Consumers can be confident about the safety of their seafood,” FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said via email.

Karas added that the FDA "conducts targeted risk-based testing of products,” inspects foreign processing facilities and consults with foreign authorities. And the FDA’s ability to police foreign imports will be strengthened, he said, by the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in January.

Eluding Detection

To prevent tainted fish from entering the country, the FDA uses an import alert system that allows officials to detain fish products without inspection if they come from companies or countries on the "red alert" list – a lengthy and shifting list of entities that have been caught bringing in products that pose health hazards.

But some state officials have said those on the “red alert” list play cat-and-mouse games with U.S. authorities, shipping vast quantities of tainted fish and banking on the fact that most of what they send will elude detection.

"When you're not checking but one percent of what's coming into the country...if a load is rejected they can just go out and put it on another ship, bring it in and they have a 99 percent chance of not getting caught,” McNulty said.

The Florida-based Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade group for domestic producers, has raised questions about whether the FDA red alert list works to keep tainted fish out of the U.S. marketplace.

 It recently complained to the FDA about an Indian firm, Sagar Grandhi Exports, wondering why it would be allowed to ship more than a million pounds of shrimp while it was on the agency’s red list for previously exporting shrimp laced with banned nitrofuran residue.

 Shipping records from Panjiva, a firm that researches global trade, corroborate that Sagar Grandhi did, in fact, export while it was red listed more than a million pounds of shrimp to the U.S. through Los Angeles, Long Beach, Newark, New York, Seattle and Savannah. Sagar Grandhi officials could not be reached for comment.

In a letter of reply to the alliance, the acting deputy director of the FDA's Office of Food Safety, William Jones, did not disclose what happened in the case of Sagar Grandhi shipment. He noted, however, that India has implemented a mandatory testing program for shrimp exports.

Jones also said that red list companies seeking FDA clearance for their shipments commonly hire private labs to test their seafood.

None of that persuades Nathaniel Rickard, an attorney for the alliance. From the language of the FDA letter, he said, it suggests that the Indian firm hired a private lab to test its shrimp, “but who knows if they did?” 

Laurie Udesky is a staff writer for FairWarning, (www.fairwarning.org) a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on safety and health issues. FairWarning is a member of the Investigative News Network. 

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