Untested water: 99.9 percent of foreign fish goes without testing for unsafe drugs

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VENICE, LA (InvestigateTV) - Nearly every piece of seafood in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants comes from another country, but our government only looks at a tiny fraction to make sure it’s safe.

A majority of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, however the government is failing to keep up with food safety laws. (Source: InvestigateTV)

But when they do test, they find contaminated fish that could harm consumers, InvestigateTV has found.

Banned antibiotics.

Chemical dyes.

Salmonella.

Some fish, according to federal inspection records, are “filthy, putrid or decomposed.”

There is also evidence that the main oversight agency for seafood, the Food and Drug Administration, has failed to meet new mandates to increase inspections at foreign food facilities.

American fishermen and fish farmers say the lack of inspections harms them. They say they’re being undercut by overseas companies – because foreign farmers are using prohibited steroids to grow bigger fish and banned antibiotics to keep fish alive in dirty conditions. Those fish, American fishermen say, are then easily slipped into the U.S.

“They need to be held to the same standard, but they’re not,” said shrimper Acy Cooper, who also heads the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “They’ve got containers and containers coming into this country that nobody ever even looks at. It just goes straight to the source. Straight to where they want them to go, and nobody ever tests them.”

In the United States, the FDA is responsible for the inspection of most seafood. The agency requires all fish processors who will sell product in the country and may have a food safety issue to have a hazard analysis plan and meet specific plan requirements. That plan describes how the fish is processed, identifies potential food safety issues and shows how those issues will be prevented through monitoring and other methods.

With imports, the FDA reviews the hazard information a seafood company provides itself, and if the agency determines there is a possible risk based on a company’s history or records, it could test the seafood.

But the number of samples actually tested is minuscule. And the number of issues found when fish is tested is too high, according to some fishermen and policy-makers.

Low amount of testing raises health concerns

Approximately 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. And, about half of that fish comes from farms, rather than the wild, according to the Government Accountability Office, which has been tapped multiple times to investigate foreign fish safety.

“The issue there is that producers will use drugs, for example, antibiotics, to make sure the fish in those conditions are kept alive,” said Steve Morris, director of the GAO’s natural resources and environment team.

In fact, the GAO found that the FDA only looks at about 2 percent of imports for issues. Worse, the office found only 0.1 percent of the one million shipments of fish imported annually get inspected specifically for illegal drugs – and the FDA finds evidence of banned drugs in around 10 percent of what it actually does test.

For example, the GAO analysis of import data showed of the 250 million pounds of catfish imported into the United States in the 2015 fiscal year, the FDA only tested 33 samples for drugs that entire year. Of those samples, nearly one in 10 contained unsafe drugs.

The findings were even worse with shrimp - inspectors found more than 12 percent of shrimp samples tested positive for unsafe drugs.

“The concern there is that the antibiotics and the residues from these drugs are kept in the fish through processing and harvesting, and ultimately will be ingested by the consumer,” Morris said. “There’s health threats related to that – anything from allergic reactions to cancer.”

There is also a concern that eating contaminated fish may contribute to antibiotic resistance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year at least 2 million people in the U.S. get an antibiotic-resistant infection, and at least 23,000 people die as a result.

The agency reports antibiotic use in food supply can affect humans. The FDA maintains a list of drugs that it allows fish farmers in the U.S. and abroad to use.

The problem, experts say, is when non-approved antibiotics end up in food. That’s part of what the FDA is looking for when it tests seafood and why experts and local fishermen said there is such a concern when not much is tested.

“For about 18-to-20 years we’ve been telling them this is bad,” the shrimper, Cooper, said.

Cooper said the shrimp industry is one where the issue of resistance is definitely in play.

InvestigateTV analyzed import refusal data from the FDA to see how often unsafe drug levels were found in seafood, particularly in shrimp.

Between January 2014 and November 2018, the analysis found the FDA turned away farm-raised shrimp more than any other type of seafood. And when looking specifically at seafood refused for unsafe drugs, farmed shrimp also topped that list.

The FDA has determined farmed seafood is a product that should have more scrutiny, as are smoked fish, tuna and mahi-mahi. Some fish companies are red-listed because of unsafe drug concerns, and the FDA can automatically detain their seafood.

The data also shows that salmonella was the second most common reason cited by the FDA for turning away fish. That bacteria and campylobacter, another bacteria spread through food, including shellfish, makes 400,000 Americans sick every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the CDC.

The most common reason for refusal was seafood found to have “filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food.”

Undercutting the American seafood industry

There also is worry in the domestic seafood industry about the dangerous food squeezing out their business.

That’s because by using drugs, Cooper said, the foreign farmers can grow more fish faster – and sell them cheaper.

“They use the antibiotics to keep them healthy, they use steroids to make them grow faster, that way they get more out of the ponds,” Cooper said.

And he said, foreign companies know they likely won’t get caught for bringing contaminated fish here.

“They don’t allow it here in the United States, but they let it come in that way.”

The FDA acknowledged in a report to Congress that foreign seafood is inspected less frequently than American fish: “The number of foreign inspections is small compared to the number of firms exporting to the U.S. and compared to domestic inspections.”

Cooper said because foreign shrimp farms can grow more by using methods illegal in the United States and know they likely can slip by inspectors, he is losing out.

According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, when accounting for inflation, the average value of Louisiana shrimp dropped from around $3.50 per pound in 1980 to $1.50 per pound in 2017.

Catfish farmers said they have seen the same troubles, particularly in the last 15 years or so.

Bill Battle’s family has been in the catfish business since 1969. About five years ago, his business shrank from 3,000 acres and 250 employees to 1,000 acres and 150 workers. He attributes his hardship to scarcely- regulated imports flooding the market.

“We were fighting the whole time to try to get inspections for these fish,” Battle said. “Because we knew they were full of antibiotics that have been banned in this country since the 70s, and also industrial dyes that kill parasites and fungus that we used to use here.

“But when they were banned, American farmers stopped using it,” he said. “But those rules didn’t apply overseas.”

As for looking at the facilities overseas, the FDA only goes to a handful. According to the GAO, in 2016, the FDA inspected only 2 percent of foreign seafood processors and did not visit any overseas farms or laboratories.

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA) mandated more foreign facility inspections for all types of food processing; however, as of 2015, the FDA was not in compliance – and citing funding issues, said it did not plan to be compliant with the law’s requirements in the future.

The FDA did not directly respond to numerous questions about the low level of testing and FSMA-mandated facility inspections.

FDA spokesman Peter Cassell sent information about the hazard plan program, including that the FDA electronically reviews import company papers to determine risk and will test products “in some cases.”

He said in an email, “Seafood imports come from all over the world and the FDA makes millions of risk-based import decisions every day. Any product that violates or appears to violate FDA laws can be refused entry to the U.S. market or destroyed. One hundred percent of the products identified as high risk are reviewed and may be subject to detention, refusal or destruction.”

New oversight for catfish

Something else has changed for Battle that is unique to the catfish wedge of the seafood industry: Regulatory oversight for catfish shifted from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2016.

The catfish industry lobbied for that change.

“We knew that the foreign product was substandard, and we knew that if we could get USDA jurisdiction that they would do a lot better job than before,” Battle said.

The USDA is also in charge of other fish in the same variety as catfish, called Siluriformes, like Asian basa and swai.

That change in oversight, Battle said, has made catfish far safer – and far more inspected, even at his own farm and processing plant.

“The FDA would show up every once in a while, and the inspection that they did was just kind of a walkthrough. But the USDA comes every day,” Battle said. “They’ve got an office that they’ve got a key to. And they’ve got keys to the plant. And any day they want to show up, any time, they can come in.”

The USDA officials, he said, can grab anything they want right off the line and have it tested.

But while Battle said he’s seen vast improvements under the USDA, he still has concern about how foreign farmers are being regulated.

“It’s still unclear in my mind that the foreign product is having to go through the same process,” Battle said. “We don’t want to say the imports can’t come in, but they need to be at least as good as we are, that they be held to the same standards. And that’s the reason that we lobbied and fought so hard to get the USDA into our plants and into our business. Because the FDA inspection just it wasn’t nearly as rigorous, and it didn’t do any testing on the foreign product that made any difference.”

The GAO has noted continuing problems with unequal restrictions for domestic and foreign catfish, even after the change to USDA oversight.

According to GAO reports, domestic catfish has to meet USDA drug limits; however, other countries can use their own standards. In the U.S., the USDA tests for 61 drugs, but it is unknown which drugs and at what level other countries may be testing for.

That can create issues where foreign fish are allowed to have far more drugs than an American-farmed fish would be permitted. For example, Vietnam, which is the largest catfish exporter to U.S., has nine drugs where acceptable levels are higher than the USDA’s threshold – including an antibiotic where a level 30 times higher is acceptable there.

“Consumers out there are going to restaurants, sitting down, ordering catfish, they really don’t know what they’re getting. They’re unknowingly consuming foreign product with possible banned substances in it,” Battle said.

The USDA did not respond to requests for comment before the deadline given for publication.

Rejected in Europe, accepted in the U.S.

While the U.S. tests few imported fish for issues like salmonella and unsafe drugs, the European Union tests a lot. In stark comparison to the roughly 2 percent of seafood inspected in the U.S., countries in the EU inspect as much as 50 percent of imported seafood products, according to a 2011 study by Johns Hopkins researchers.

Unlike the U.S., the EU also puts the responsibility for testing on other countries.

“They require that whatever country is going to export into the EU, that they would test for drugs of concern at the levels considered unsafe by the EU… before it even gets to an entry point within the EU,” Morris said.

One of issues is with how the strict laws of some countries mix with the lax laws in the United States. Fish rejected in another country, Morris said, could end up on an American dinner table.

“That could be rejected for example from the [European Union], and that seafood could be marketed for U.S. consumers,” Morris said.

Moreover, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, has another concern: Even fish that is found to be contaminated and rejected in the United States can still come right back.

“In some cases, they can be selling it to other countries, or going to another country, repackaging it and sending it right back into the United States. That’s crazy,” Scalise said. “What I think they should do, and I’ve actually shared this with the FDA commissioner, is if they find bad seafood, destroy it right there on the spot.”

If needed, Scalise said he has plans to work with his legislative team on drafting a specific law to allow the inspection officials to destroy bad product.

He said he also wants to see more testing, given the numbers he’s seen: 2 percent is checked – out of 6 billion pounds of seafood imported each year.

“Whether it’s got salmonella, shards of glass, they’ve found all kind of infractions when they’ve done the
testing,” Scalise said.

He calls more testing a starting point – and forced dumping of bad fish the next priority.

“We should see more consistency with seafood,” Scalise said. “Frankly that means we ought to hold the FDA more accountable to up their standards.”

Senator John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, is also pushing for more inspections. He has a proposal pending that would increase FDA funding for imported seafood inspections by 26 percent.

Slow movement on GAO recommendations

The GAO made a number of recommendations 18 months ago to improve seafood safety and oversight.

First, the GAO called for drug testing earlier in the import process and for the FDA to enter into agreements with other countries to force them to do the testing, a system similar that in the EU.

“The EU has a very systematic comprehensive model for seafood safety, and there are opportunities that we can basically learn and implement from them,” Morris said.

Putting the testing requirements on the exporters, Morris said, would help with limited resources often cited by the FDA.

The GAO has made this type of recommendation before; in 2001, it suggested the FDA develop goals and time frames for requiring other countries document that their food safety programs are equal to the United States.

As of June 2017, a decade and a half after that recommendation - there still were no agreements with foreign countries. But, Morris said, there has been some movement recently.

“[The FDA has] reached out to various countries to have discussions about initiating these formal agreements. But it’s very early on,” Morris said.

As far as the USDA, the GAO wants the same allowable drug lists to be used overseas that are used in the United States. Since 2017, Morris said the USDA has looked at the major export countries (China, Thailand, and Vietnam) to establish some equivalency – and the agency has also done some fish farm visits.

All recommendations formally remain open – meaning neither the FDA nor UDA has implemented them fully.

Who should be in charge?

As for which agency should be in charge of inspections, initially, the GAO had criticized the fragmentation of having the USDA inspect one type of seafood (catfish), while the FDA inspects everything else.

Congress weighed in and determined that the USDA would remain in control of the catfish industry. Morris said the biggest change that needs to happen now is making sure that not only are countries on the same page, but that the FDA and USDA are, too.

“When you look at what FDA is testing for and what USDA is testing for, they’re not necessarily testing for the same things at the same amounts. And the reason is [because] they haven’t really collaborated and coordinated on their testing methods or what would be considered unsafe,” Morris said.

For example, currently the FDA has a list of 26 drugs that shouldn’t be used in fish farming; however, the USDA has 61 drugs it has banned from catfish farming. Other standards are stricter the other way – for one antibiotic, Morris said, the USDA allows a level 20 times higher than the FDA would consider acceptable in fish.

There are outspoken opponents to the USDA having oversight in the seafood industry, including the National Restaurant Association and the National Fisheries Institute. Both said they would oppose moving other seafood oversight to the USDA. The NFI applauded the FDA’s current oversight of other seafood and suggested catfish be moved back over, criticizing the initial move as an attempt to block imported competition.

“We absolutely think regulatory oversight of catfish should go back to FDA. FDA has a solid food safety record with regard to fish, and that’s where catfish belongs,” Gavin Gibbons, the NFI’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email.

Gibbons also pointed to a recent bankruptcy filing by an Alabama catfish company, SouthFresh, as evidence that the switch to USDA oversight has been negative. The company shut down its operations in Mississippi and Alabama.

In the bankruptcy filings obtained by InvestigateTV, SouthFresh blamed more imports and customer demand for the struggles within the catfish industry in the last decade.

The January 2019 filing said the shift to USDA regulation forced domestic farming operations like theirs to upgrade facilities in order to comply with the “stricter inspection process” – that, the company said, was a main factor in shutting down.

No matter who is in charge, for Cooper and Battle, they said they believe the solution for both food safety and the security of their industries is to make sure imported food is held to a higher standard than it is now.

“We know the imports have to come in. We know that. We can’t supply this country with enough shrimp to eat… But we do want good shrimp that’s coming in. Not bad [that’s] been happening,” Cooper said.

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