Houston Community News >> U.S. Blocks China Seafood

6/29/2007 WASHINGTON -- The list of quality-compromised goods from China grew 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, since there was more than enough available on the world market.

Thursday's FDA action came just days after federal transportation officials ordered the recall of up to 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. Earlier this year, a pet food manufacturer recalled massive amounts of its products because of contamination in 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 said the FDA rarely issues an import detention order covering a product from an entire country. Instead, 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."

However, three southern states beat the FDA to the punch: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi banned sales of catfish from China earlier 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 percent 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 to 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 such germ-fighting drugs, called fluoroquinolones. Introducing them into foods can result in people building up 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. In China only the antimicrobials are banned, and the antibiotics are allowed.

"The FDA is taking this action to protect the public health of the American people from unsafe substances in imported Chinese seafood," Acheson said.

However, FDA officials 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."

(Contributed by AP)