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 yesterday.
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 and 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.
It is the first nationwide import ban on seafood.
"There's been a continued pattern of violation with no signs of abatement," said David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food safety at the FDA.
The U.S. imports 81 percent of its seafood. China is a major source of that seafood, accounting for 21 percent of total imports. More than 80 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported, of which 7 percent is from China. About 10 percent of catfish comes from China, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
China is the third-largest exporter of shrimp to the U.S., alongside the Philippines and Mexico, which are also significant seafood suppliers. FDA officials said there are about a half-dozen import alerts on specific companies from other countries that import seafood to the U.S., also for using harmful chemicals.
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 free of residue from contaminants that are not approved in the United States for use in farm-raised aquatic animals.
The announcement caught the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have been critical of the FDA's job in protecting the nation's food supply.
"Today's revelation appears to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to contaminated and dangerous Chinese goods coming into the U.S.," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. "There is no question that too many Chinese manufacturers and food producers put the bottom line ahead of safety. The FDA still needs to do much more to address this worsening crisis. We need stricter standards, more thorough inspections, and harsher penalties for Chinese companies and American shippers that turn a blind eye to safety."
The import ban by the FDA comes after several Southern states already blocked the sale of Chinese seafood because it contained contaminants. But FDA officials said the agency was following its normal strategy and was not slow to respond to the situation.
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.
Despite the alert, federal health regulators said that 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 Dr. Acheson.
China has been in the news repeatedly in recent months for contaminated products, from toothpaste to pet food to tires, entering the U.S. market. The health concerns 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 news media said this week.
The FDA 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 yesterday that the country's exports are safe, issuing a rare direct commentary because of the international scrutiny of 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. However, Chinese officials said the seizure was not indicative of a tit-for-tat trade war.
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 are 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 acknowledge that fluoroquinolones are used in Chinese aquaculture and are permitted for use in China.