Seafood Safety: Tainted Imports Are Fishy

While seafood is usually touted as a health food high in omega-3 fatty acids helping boost brain and heart health, recent scathing reports paint a less desirable picture of America’s fish tainted with waste, chemicals, and antibiotics. Supermarket cases and restaurants make our seafood look presentable, but is it really safe to eat?

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story reports unsanitary conditions for many Asian seafood exporters, along with government lagging in its ability to clean it up.

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A Closer Look at Aquaculture

About 86 percent of our seafood is imported, and half of that is from aquaculture—fish farms. Most aquaculture imports are shrimp, tilapia, Atlantic salmon, and shellfish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In Vietnam, shrimp is stored in dirty plastic tubs, covered in ice made from tap water that could be contaminated with bacteria. Vietnam ships more than 100 million pounds of shrimp to the United States each year or about 8 percent of all the shrimp we eat.  

In China, many fish farms reportedly use pig manure as feed, which contains salmonella and makes tilapia more susceptible to disease.

In addition, “shrimp farms in South and Southeast Asia are essentially factory farms, with all that implies—including antibiotic overuse,” according to a Wired piece published earlier this year. Many of the antibiotics in these fish farms are banned for use in the U.S.

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FDA Only Tests Small Sample of Imports

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of our seafood, they may not be bringing their A-game to the task: Bloomberg reports that only 2.7 percent of all seafood imports are inspected by the FDA.

In 2008, FDA Deputy Director of Food Safety, Don Kraemer testified before Congress, summarizing the issue:

As the aquaculture industry continues to grow, concern about the use of unapproved drugs and unsafe chemicals in aquaculture operations has increased significantly. There is clear scientific evidence that the use of unapproved antibiotics and other drugs and chemicals, such as malachite green, nitrofurans, fluoroquinolones, and gentian violet, can result in the presence of residues in the edible portions of aquacultured seafood. 

Even after this testimony, a 2011 GOA report found that the FDA tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues. To put this in perspective: out of 2.5 million metric tons of imported shrimp, the FDA tested only 34 samples for nitrofurans. Even worse: six of these samples came back positive.

The FDA also inspects processing facilities overseas, but that program too seems halfhearted at best. Only 1.5 percent of seafood facilities had been inspected, according to the GOA report.

Here’s a closer look at what it means for seafood-lovers.

The Impact of Tainted Fish And What to Do

A recent study by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a quarter of the food-borne illness outbreaks from imported food involved seafood. That’s significantly more than the next food type on the list.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid seafood altogether. There are some steps you can take now to continue to enjoy safe, healthy fish and shrimp. Here are some tips:

  • The best course of action for consumers could be to avoid farmed fish. Look for sustainable seafood, wild caught, or eco-labeled.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your local seafood provider questions and create dialogue.
  • Use seafood guides to stay informed and make smart choices in your area.

Check out these organizations:

The INCOFISH Project has a summary of international seafood guides and a searchable database to look up seafood by name, country or continent.

The Seafood Choices Alliance works with conservation groups worldwide and offers seafood recommendation guides, aquaculture and fisheries resources and links to conservation organizations working on seafood and other issues.

The National Resources Defense Council offers a Sustainable Seafood Guide with tips for making smarter seafood choices.  

Fishwise is a sustainable seafood consultancy that promotes the health and recovery of ocean ecosystems by providing resources for consumers and industry leaders. 

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