Every year, one out of four Americans, or 76 million people, experiences a foodborne illness, and seafood products cause 18 percent to 20 percent of such outbreaks in the United States. Today, Americans are consuming more seafood than ever, and to meet this growing demand, 83 percent of it is imported. As wild fish supplies wane, almost half of the seafood produced around the world comes from industrial fish farms. These operations satisfy the surging demand for seafood by cramming together fish, which creates conditions for disease and parasites to spread. Many operators address their unsanitary conditions by using antibiotics and chemicals that can leave residues in the fish that people eat.
The Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of seafood imports. However, inadequate funding and a mediocre inspection program contributed to the federal government agency physically inspecting less than two percent of the nearly 860,000 imported seafood shipments in 2006. Only 0.59 percent of shipments were tested for contaminants in a laboratory. Physical inspection gives the greatest assurance of detecting safety issues in seafood products, so the low rate of inspection raises concerns about the safety of imported seafood sold in U.S. restaurants and grocery stores.
Analysis of FDA refusals of imported seafood shipments from 2003 to 2006 revealed some troubling trends:
- Of the imports refused, more than 65 percent were processed seafood products, which are exempt from country of origin labeling requirements that the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees.
- More than 20 percent of all import refusals were due to Salmonella. Of those, almost 40 percent were shrimp, the most popular seafood among Americans. Shrimp imports increased by 95 percent between 1995 and 2006, contributing to the growth in imports.
- The government is refusing more seafood because of veterinary drug residues – including new drug varieties detected on Chinese products in 2005 and 2006. Nearly 60 percent of the imports refused for veterinary drug residues in 2006 were from China.
- The percentage of imported seafood shipments with samples taken for laboratory inspection has decreased over the past four years.
Trends in the global production of seafood make now the critical time for FDA to increase physical inspection of imported seafood. Congress should appropriate the money to make this happen, and USDA should expand country of origin labeling to include processed seafood products so consumers are aware of where their seafood originates. Together, these measures would better ensure the safety of America’s seafood.
Consumers can address the root of the issue by buying only wild-caught, sustainably produced seafood instead of imported industrially-farmed fish.
Import Alert looks at data from FDA import refusals of seafood shipments at the U.S. border and identifies trends in the data from 2003 to 2006. The report will highlight issues related to imports of shrimp, the most popular seafood among U.S. consumers.