WASHINGTON — The list of quality-compromised goods from China got longer Thursday as federal authorities slapped a highly unusual hold on shrimp and certain fish from that country after tests showed contamination from potentially harmful drugs.
The Food and Drug Administration said it would block all shipments from China of farm-raised shrimp, catfish, eel and two other kinds of fish until importers can produce independent test results showing the items to be free of drugs banned in U.S. fish farming.
Agency officials said there was no immediate threat to human health. An industry expert said he didn't expect shortages of shrimp because of the FDA action, because there was more than enough available on the world market.
Thursday's hold came just days after federal transportation officials ordered the recall of as many as 450,000 tires made in China after some lost their treads on the road. Toothpaste from China that was recalled because of contamination with an antifreeze chemical now turns out to have been distributed not just to a few discount stores but to prisons and mental hospitals in Georgia. This year, a pet food manufacturer recalled massive amounts of its products because of contamination from an ingredient imported from China.
Federal authorities haven't done enough to prevent shoddy and even dangerous goods made in China from reaching American consumers, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
"There is no question that too many Chinese manufacturers and food producers put the bottom line ahead of safety," Schumer said in a statement. "We need stricter standards, more thorough inspections and harsher penalties for Chinese companies and American shippers that turn a blind eye to safety."
Separately, two senior Democratic lawmakers -- Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut -- called for the government to negotiate a food safety agreement with China that would raise standards in that country.
" 'Made in China' is rapidly becoming a warning label for American consumers," Durbin said.
Food industry experts say the FDA rarely issues an import detention order covering a product from an entire country. The sanction is usually used against individual companies that have failed to correct problems. A similar import hold is in place for cantaloupes from Mexico because of salmonella contamination.
Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's recently appointed assistant commissioner for food protection, said the agency acted after finding "a continued pattern of violations [with] no sign of abatement."
Three Southern states, however, beat the FDA to the punch: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi banned sales of catfish from China this year after finding traces of an antibiotic in the fish.
"It begs the question of why [the FDA] didn't act sooner," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. "They are taking corrective action today, but they really need more resources and authority to prevent the problems from occurring."
The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of imported seafood and produce, but it is widely acknowledged to be seriously short of funding to carry out its mission. As a result, only about 1% of food imports are inspected.
The agency also lacks legal authority to compel foreign producers to adopt U.S. food safety standards. Critics say that has made it into a regulatory weakling when compared with the Agriculture Department, which has the authority to impose such standards and uses it to safeguard meat imports.
FDA officials said they recently had begun to inspect a larger share of food imports from China. Since October, the agency has tested 89 samples of shrimp, catfish, eel, basa and dace. Basa is similar to catfish, and dace is related to carp.
The testing showed that 22 of the samples -- about one-fourth -- contained drug residue.
The drugs included three antimicrobials and a type of antibiotic, the FDA said.
The antimicrobials are known to cause cancer when fed in large quantities to laboratory animals. The antibiotics belong to an important class of germ-fighting drugs, called fluoroquinolones. Introducing them into foods can result in people building a resistance that would diminish the effectiveness of the drugs in treating infections.
All the drugs are banned from use in fish farming in the U.S. China bans the antimicrobials but not the antibiotics.
"The FDA is taking this action to protect the public health of the American people from unsafe substances in imported Chinese seafood," Acheson said.
FDA officials, however, said the small quantities of the banned chemicals found in testing were not enough to pose an immediate threat to human health.
"We are not asking for this product to be withdrawn from the market or for people to take it out of their freezer and throw it away," said Margaret Glavin, head of the FDA's enforcement branch. "This is a long-term health concern ... not an acute concern."
The U.S. imports more than 80% of the shrimp consumed in restaurants and at dinner tables. Major retailers here set their own safety standards and hire independent testing firms to monitor compliance, said William R. More, director of one such firm, Aquaculture Certification Council Inc., based near Seattle.
"Most U.S. buyers are checking every single container from China," More said. "They used to check about 3%, but now anything being brought out of China in terms of seafood, that container is being checked."
China is the second-largest supplier of shrimp to the American market, well behind Thailand but gaining ground. The FDA's action might cause the Chinese suppliers to stumble, but American consumers probably won't see higher prices or shortages.
"There is an excess supply of shrimp in the world today," More said. "Other countries will fill the gap, so I don't think it would have an immediate impact."