The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Seafood Imports

Seafood Imports

Food Safety Update

July 31, 2007

Seafood Imports
Until very recently, seafood wasn’t a high priority for most Americans. In fact, a generation ago, fisherman who caught tuna in most of the world sold the meat for pennies. Today, Americans eat more than 16 pounds of seafood per person per year. That’s about 30% more than they ate 25 years ago. Certain cuts of tuna – once marketed on the cheap for cat food – are now worth hundreds of dollars a pound.
As global demand for seafood rises (due in part to great marketing on its health benefits), so do concerns about its safety. The CDC reports that approximately 18 to 20% of known foodborne illnesses are caused by seafood products, and this number could increase as the number of seafood imports also continues to climb.
Of the 860,000 seafood shipments imported in 2006, says a recent Food and Water Watch study, less than 2% were physically inspected. Imports that were inspected (and rejected) failed inspections because of contaminants like Salmonella and unapproved veterinary drug residues. Nearly 60% of the imports refused because of drug residues specifically were from – you guessed it – China.
“Before the melamine situation, the FDA wasn’t thoroughly inspecting imported pet and fish food ingredients because these items weren’t on their high-risk list. So in theory, they will now beef up inspections in this area,” says Patty Lovera, Assistant Director for Food and Water Watch. “I say ‘in theory’, though, because here you have a case where imported seafood is repeatedly failing inspections, and still the inspection rate in this area is decreasing. It makes no sense.”
According to the Food and Water Watch report, FDA inspections on seafood have indeed fallen – from .88% in 2003 to .59& in 2006. This is due in part to the fact that the FDA only receives about 35% of the total annual food safety budget. As for the budget for inspecting foreign seafood processing plants? In 2003, they allotted $211,000. In 2007, they allotted zero.
“FDA budgets haven’t even begun to keep up with the growing demand for imports. This is a problem across all sectors of the food industry, but it’s even more of a problem for seafood because of how dependent we are on imports in this category,” says Patty Lovera, Assistant Director for Food and Water Watch. “Wild fish populations are dwindling because demand for cheaper seafood is skyrocketing. That means supply is going to most likely come from crowded, and possibly unsanitary, fish farms.”
The U.S. imports more than 80% of its seafood, and much of it comes from industrial fish farm operations in Asia and Latin America. Fish farming, also know as “aquaculture”, is a method of raising large quantities of fish in giant nets or cages. Aquaculture is not a new phenomenon, but its current incarnation is. Years ago, fish farms raised species that could naturally co-exist, thus creating a sustainable, healthy ecosystem. Current methods raise a single fish intensively, creating a potential breeding ground for disease.
About 40% of U.S. seafood imports are raised in aquaculture, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many of these operations administer antibiotics, hormones and pesticides to their product to maintain fish health. These chemicals are, for the most part, illegal in the U.S., so American fish farms don’t use them. Imported fish, however, could still contain chemical residues when they come to market.
Shrimp presents a particular problem. Americans consume 4.1 pounds per year per person, making shrimp the best selling seafood product in the U.S. Imports went up 95% over the last decade; approximately 1.3 billion pounds were imported in 2006 alone. Here’s the kicker: In 2005, shrimp were responsible for 65% of all import refusals due to drug residues.
“With shrimp, it’s a numbers game. Increased demand leads to an increase of imports, and then an increased potential for ingesting non-inspected, potentially contaminated product,” Lovera says. “Until the FDA can expand their inspection process, and developing countries improve their food safety practices, our best bet for protection against contaminated food is Country Of Origin Labeling.”
Although seafood is the only food product (besides beef) that currently requires Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) – it’s been required since 2005 to bear labels stating where it was harvested and if it was wild-caught or farm-raised – nearly half of all seafood is exempt. That’s because processed seafood is excluded from the labeling process. A processed item is anything that has either undergone a change in character or has been combined with at least one other covered commodity, says the USDA. That includes anything fried, cured, frozen, canned, marinated or smoked.
“We’re not happy with the way the USDA excluded processed items,” says Lovera. “There is no reason why they shouldn’t be covered under the same federal rule.”