Americans eat billions of pounds of seafood each year, but few know that almost all of the fish on our dinner plates is imported. Fish is nutritious and provides important health benefits, but seafood also is the largest identified source of foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
International trade deals have brought a rising tide of imported seafood, which has overtaxed the ability of U.S. border inspectors to ensure that it is safe to eat. By 2015, the United States imported 5.5 billion pounds of seafood, representing more than 90 percent of U.S. seafood consumption.
A large portion of the imported seafood is not caught by fishing fleets but is raised on large-scale fish farms. These factory farms on water raise hundreds of thousands of tightly packed carp, shrimp, tilapia, crab and catfish in one location in often unhygienic conditions. To combat widespread disease, fish farmers in the developing world that supply the U.S. market often use drugs and chemicals that are banned in the United States.
Border inspectors with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) examine only a tiny portion of these imports, and the FDA conducts even fewer tests in laboratories to screen imports for illegal drug residues, pathogens like Salmonella or other contaminants. The currently pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would only increase imports further — including from major fish farming nations like Vietnam and Malaysia that already have a checkered safety record.
Food & Water Watch examined a decade of FDA seafood import shipment, inspection, laboratory test and refusal data from 2006 to 2015, exposing substantial weaknesses in the inspection system for imported seafood.
- The FDA inspects only 2 percent of imported seafood; more than 5.3 billion pounds of seafood entered the U.S. food supply without even a cursory examination in 2015;
- Less than 1 percent of seafood imports are tested by the FDA at a laboratory for pathogens like Salmonella or Listeria or the presence of illegal veterinary drugs;
- Although few imports are examined, the FDA rejected 11 percent of inspected shipments for significant food safety problems;
- Salmonella, Listeria, filth and illegal veterinary medicines were the most common reasons that imported seafood was rejected; and
- The number of imports rejected for illegal veterinary drugs nearly tripled over the past decade, and made up one-fourth of all FDA refusals between 2014 and 2015.
Seafood imports have exceeded the FDA’s ability to ensure that the fish that reaches our supermarkets and restaurants is safe to eat. More trade deals like the TPP would further overtax FDA inspectors and deliver more uninspected seafood to the U.S. food supply.