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China's Seafood Shipment Causes Anxiety

WASHINGTON - During the month of March, certain unsettling discoveries were made: Chinese seafood arriving at US ports were found to be infected with salmonella in Seattle and Baltimore, and shrimp with banned veterinary drugs were found in Florida, according to the Seattle Times.

Meanwhile, a shipment intercepted in Los Angeles on March 19 labeled "channel catfish" wasn't catfish at all, although records don't say what it was.

"A lot of those products coming in from overseas, you have no clue as to what is in them," said Paul Hitchens, an aquaculture specialist in Southern Illinois, where cut-rate Chinese catfish are threatening the livelihood of fish farmers.

China has rapidly become the leading exporter of seafood to the United States, flooding supermarkets and restaurants. And while China agreed late last year to improve the safety of its food exports, the inspectors' March findings were not isolated cases.

According to Food and Drug Administration records examined by the Post-Dispatch, inspectors turned away nearly 400 shipments of tainted seafood in a year's time from China.

The records told a troubling tale, but even more troubling was what they didn't tell. Only a tiny fraction of imports are inspected at all, and even fewer are tested.

Imports of seafood have surged dramatically in recent years and account for nearly 80 percent of the seafood consumed by Americans. That translates to 4.8 billion pounds of imported seafood last year out of the 5.8 billion pounds consumed.

Seafood is considered one of the riskiest imports, and those from China have risen steadily. When the FDA does turn away shipments, usually it is because they contain veterinary drugs, among them nitrofurans, a family of antibiotics banned by the FDA because tests showed they cause cancer in animals.

More than 100 of the shipments were rejected for being filthy, decomposed or otherwise unfit for consumption, according to the records.

In December, after disclosures about Chinese imports of poisonous pet food and lead-filled toys, the FDA and the Chinese government agreed on new procedures aimed at preventing tainted and dangerous food and drugs from reaching American shores. But skeptics question whether the new, voluntary arrangement has sufficient teeth.

FDA officials are requesting new authority, including the ability to license private companies to assist with inspections. But the Bush administration has signaled opposition to key provisions that would require regular inspections in foreign lands and limit ports where food can arrive to docks with FDA labs.

Former FDA officials argue that change is urgently needed.

Supermarket frozen-food sections routinely are filled with imported fish fillets, shrimp and crabmeat which must contain country-of-origin labels on packaging.

No such disclosure is required for fish served in restaurants, so people generally can't know with certainty where the fish or shrimp they ordered originated.

It's usually impossible to track down the source of food-borne illnesses, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, occur 76 million times annually in the United States, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

In an agreement reached by the FDA and its Chinese counterparts in December, seafood was accorded the status of "high-risk" because of ongoing problems. Now, the FDA says, both sides are pursuing initiatives that the FDA hopes will lead to an FDA office in China and an electronic certification system for imports arriving in the United States.

View the Seattle Times story by clicking here.