Antibiotics in Foreign Catfish Prompts Public Concerns

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
3 May 2007, at 1:00am

US - Catfish contamination at some Mississippi grocery stores could indicate a much larger problem with the safety of imported foods, says state Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell.

His department issued a stop-sale order on some imported Chinese catfish last Tuesday at four Mississippi grocery stores and said the scope of its testing has broadened.

Samples from the four stores tested positive for traces of an antibiotic banned by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. The antibiotics do not present an immediate health danger, but their use in animals harvested for food is banned in the US because they create drug-resistant bacteria.

Chinese farmers acquired fingerlings of U.S. catfish several years ago and began exporting frozen fish. China now provides less than five percent of US catfish sales, but it is rapidly grabbing market share.

"When you send four samples in and all four of them - coming from different areas across the state - are positive, it's an indication this could be just the tip of the iceberg," said Mr Spell. He initiated testing after some banned substances were discovered in imported catfish in Alabama.

"Alabama's results and these results and the pet food scare we are going through clearly points out the inherent danger of foreign food coming into this country that does not meet the standards of food safety that ours do," said Lester Spell. "I think the problem is widespread in imported fish," he added.

Spell said 12 to 14 inspectors will seek out more foreign catfish statewide. The department also will be routinely testing the samples for pesticides.

He said his remit is retail grocery stores as the state Department of Health regulates food safety at nursing homes, public schools, hospitals and restaurants.

The Health Department, which has come under heavy scrutiny recently, has not made anyone available for comment. The department issued a written statement on Wednesday attributed to Tim Darnell, director of environmental services.

"The Food and Drug Administration is the lead regulatory agency for imported food of this type. The Mississippi Department of Health is in contact with the FDA and will take the FDA's direction in this matter. MDH will also continue to utilize the FDA food code," he said.

Spell said he didn't know what the Health Department's role would be.

"I think it begs the question, what's being bought and cooked in public schools and hospitals, nursing homes?"

About 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected by the FDA.

"FDA is not doing thorough screening and testing," Spell said. "Obviously, we can't wait on the federal government to do their job because they either don't have the manpower or the money or the will to do it."

The FDA was unavailable for comment yesterday, but in a written reposnse said thaIt said sampling and testing of shipments is only a part of the FDA inspection program, which also includes examination of entry documents provided by an importer. Its Web site says a decision not to collect a sample of imported food is based on the nature of the product, FDA priorities and the commodity's past history.