FDA largely lenient on Asian seafood imports

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration responded to jitters over Chinese imports recently by banning some of that country's seafood because of contaminants, but the agency has failed to apply the same standard to seafood supplied from other large exporters that use the same chemicals and fish-farming techniques.

Imports from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, for instance, have continued apace, even though fish-farming techniques in those countries are similar to those cited by the FDA when it issued an import alert in June targeting Chinese fish.

"This is not just a China problem," said Bradford Ward, a Washington attorney who represents the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a group of U.S. shrimp producers. "Why are other countries trading a lot, going ahead with shrimp imports and not attracting FDA attention?"

While FDA regulators focus on China, Vietnam, in particular, has been cited by other countries for the use of antibiotics and other chemicals in its fish-farming ponds - the same substances that were cited by the FDA in its "import alert" regarding certain Chinese seafood, such as shrimp and catfish. Japan and the European Union have recently raised concerns about the use of banned antibiotics in Vietnamese fish farms.

The FDA recently issued special import alerts for Asian seafood companies similar to the one issued for all of China. The alerts require the companies to prove, through lab tests, that their products are safe.

Eighty-five percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and that is just one category of import that has come under intense government scrutiny following a wave of product recalls and food contamination cases this year, many of them involving China.

Increased concerns over those imports offer a window into an increase in global trade, where countries compete for lucrative markets and governments struggle to regulate the growing flood of foreign products.

Seafood is no exception. FDA records show that only a fraction of the seafood imported annually is halted and rejected by FDA inspectors. Overall, the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of all food and drug imports each year.

When it comes to seafood, the FDA focuses on countries and companies that are known to provide contaminated fish, according to Donald Kraemer, deputy director of the agency's Office of Food Safety. That targeted approach, he said, led to the Chinese import alert and consideration of a similar ban against Vietnam several years ago.

"Over time, we have seen problems come and go in different countries," Kraemer said. "For example, a major producer of imported products is Thailand. We continue to collect samples from Thailand, but we almost never find violations. They've invested heavily in their aquaculture program and regulatory program."

Chet Trirat, assistant to the minister of commercial at the Thai Embassy in Washington, said the use of antibiotics in fish farming in Thailand is strictly controlled.

Yet FDA records show that inspectors denied entry to 203 Thai seafood products through August of this year.

Typical causes included salmonella and products that inspectors found were "filthy."

The popularity of seafood in the U.S. and Europe has prompted countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand to promote the production of fish, especially shrimp, the most popular seafood in America. In the rush to snare this trade, consumer groups argue, food safety is a secondary concern.

The ponds used to raise fish, they contend, often use dirty water. Farmers, intent on increasing yields, use feed laced with antibiotics that prevent the spread of illness among shrimp and fish that are packed into small enclosures.

"If you're talking about seafood that's raised on fish farms in China or in other parts of Asia, it's an issue," said Robert Shubert, research director for Food & Water Watch, a consumer group that recently completed a study on the dangers of imported seafood.

A spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy referred questions to a trade group, the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, which did not respond to inquiries.

The FDA's Kraemer said he works with countries like Vietnam to emphasize the need for tighter health controls. The result, Kraemer said, has been a "success story."

But other countries are more concerned about the safety of Vietnamese seafood, including Japan and the European Union, the governing health body for 27 European countries.

A recent EU report on Vietnam notes that contaminated seafood prepared for export isn't destroyed, suggesting that it's likely to be sent to a country with lower health standards.

After Japan threatened a ban on shrimp imports last year because of concerns over antibiotic use, Vietnam pledged to eliminate the use of antibiotics.

A skeptical Japan, however, has continued to inspect 100 percent of its Vietnamese shrimp imports. Those inspections, which began in 2006, have found banned antibiotics in Vietnamese seafood.

Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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