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At-risk Chinese seafood slipping through U.S. net

Import shipments that are supposed to be tested for safety are going unchecked, an investigation finds.

August 08, 2007|From the Associated Press

At least 1 million pounds of suspect Chinese seafood landed on American store shelves and dinner plates despite a Food and Drug Administration order that the shipments first be screened for banned drugs or chemicals, an Associated Press investigation found.

The frozen shrimp, catfish and eel arrived at U.S. ports under an "import alert," which meant the FDA was supposed to hold every shipment until it had passed a laboratory test.

That did not happen, according to a check of shipments since last fall. One of every four shipments the AP reviewed got through without being stopped and tested. The seafood, valued at $2.5 million, was equal to the amount that 66,000 Americans eat in a year.

The FDA put the pond-raised seafood on its watch list because of worries that it contained suspected carcinogens or antibiotics unapproved for seafood.

Although no illnesses have been reported, the failings raise serious questions about the FDA's ability to police U.S. food imports. What's more, the agency is now relying on the import alert system to screen more Chinese seafood than ever before.

"The system is outdated and it doesn't work well. They pretend it does, but it doesn't," said Carl R. Nielsen, who oversaw import inspections at the agency until he left in 2005 to start a consulting firm. "You can't make the assumption that these would be isolated instances."

If the system cannot stop known risks, Nielsen said, how can it protect against hidden dangers, such as the ingredients from China that made toothpaste potentially poisonous and killed dozens of pets this year?

China is America's biggest foreign source of seafood, the 1.06 billion pounds it supplied in 2006 accounting for 16% of all seafood Americans buy.

FDA officials acknowledged that some shipments slipped through import alerts, but said that overall they worked.

"Any time you introduce a human element into something, I don't think you can necessarily guarantee 100%," said Michael Chappell, the official responsible for field inspections and labs.

Normally, the FDA inspects just 1% of the cargo it oversees. When goods land under an import alert, however, they are considered guilty until proven innocent: All shipments are supposed to be held until private tests that cost importers thousands of dollars show the seafood is clean. Sometimes, the FDA double-checks those tests in its own labs. Products can be detained for months, irking importers who depend on volume to generate profit.

"You can't argue with FDA," said Peter Huh, co-owner of Pacific American Fish Co., a Vernon company that paid thousands of dollars for tests on 14 of its eel or catfish shipments. "So there's nothing you can do."

To snag suspects, the agency uses a web of computer codes and paperwork. The system is complex and imperfect.

A shipment can escape inspection if, for example, a company uses a name or address not on an import alert, Chappell said. That appears to be what happened in one case the AP found.

The agency is bullish, however, when it targets a product.

Last summer, FDA labs began accumulating evidence that 15% of farm-raised shrimp, eel and catfish contained dangerous or unapproved substances. The agency started throwing individual companies on its watch list, and on June 28 issued a sweeping mandate that all shrimp, eel and catfish raised on Chinese farms be stopped and tested.

Federal food safety officials said that although the seafood posed no immediate danger, long-term exposure could increase the risk of cancer or undermine the effectiveness of drugs used to fight outbreaks of disease.

The AP reviewed 4,300 manifests of seafood shipments from China compiled by Piers Global Intelligence Solutions, a company that tracks import-export data, and found 211 shipments that arrived under import alert from October to May.

FDA officials refused to identify exactly which shipments were tested, saying they were too busy to do so.

The AP contacted importers, talking to 15 companies responsible for 112 of the 211 shipments. Eleven said their products were tested; four said the FDA did not stop a total of 28 shipments weighing 1.1 million pounds.

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