Shrimp, catfish and other seafood farmed in China will be banned immediately from entering the U.S. because they contain harmful chemicals, the Food and Drug Administration said today.
The agency stressed that the contaminated fish are not being viewed as an immediate health risk and said consumers should feel comfortable eating fish currently being served in restaurants, grocery stores or their homes.
However, a nationwide industry alert was issued over China's seafood because the FDA continues to find traces of carcinogenic chemicals in fish imported from China.
During targeted sampling from October 2006 through May, the FDA repeatedly found that farm-raised seafood imported from China was contaminated with antimicrobial agents that are not approved for use in the United States.
China is the third-largest exporter of shrimp to the U.S. The U.S. also gets a significant amount of catfish from China; however, FDA officials did not have information on the exact amount of seafood imported from China.
The FDA will start to detain farm-raised catfish, shrimp, baa, eel and dace, which is related to carp, from China at the border until the shipments are proved to be free of residue from contaminants that are not approved in the United States for use in farm-raised aquatic animals.
Despite the alert, federal health regulators said the chemicals found in the fish do not represent a major health risk.
"There is no acute health concern; rather, it is a long-term health issue. We are not talking days, months or even years here, but it is clearly something we wouldn't want to ignore," said David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA.
China has been in the news repeatedly in recent months for contaminated products, from toothpaste to pet food, entering the U.S. The health concerns have triggered a cleanup in China's food industry; Chinese authorities shut down 180 domestic food manufacturers during the past six months for making substandard food or using inedible materials for food production, Chinese media said this week.
The FDA has increased monitoring on products imported from China since health scares over pet food and toothpaste and the agency says it has been vigorously monitoring seafood since before 2001.
"The focus is on China; we're looking for problems where we think they exist," said Margaret Glavin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs at the FDA.
Chinese health officials said before the FDA announcement today that the country's exports are safe, issuing a rare direct commentary because of the international scrutiny over its products.
Earlier this week, Chinese officials seized shipments of orange pulp and preserved apricots from the United States, citing high levels of bacteria, mildew and sulphur dioxide.
The contaminants, nitrofuran, malachite green, gentian violet and fluoroquinolone, are used to fight bacteria and disease in fish. Nitrofuran, malachite green and gentian violet have been shown to be carcinogenic with long-term exposure in lab animals, and the use of fluoroquinolones in animals raised for food may increase antibiotic resistance.
None of the substances is approved for use in farm-raised seafood in the United States, and the use of nitrofurans and malachite green in aquaculture is also prohibited by Chinese authorities. Chinese officials have acknowledged that fluoroquinolones are used in Chinese aquaculture and are permitted for use in China.