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Seafood FAQ: Government steps up import inspections

Preparedness helps seafood clear port-of-entry hurdles

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspector checks containers being unloaded at the Port of Miami. - Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
By James Wright
February 01, 2006

The United States is the world’s third-largest importer of seafood products, behind the European Union and Japan. In 2004, U.S. seafood imports exceeded 2 million metric tons worth more than $11 billion. And every bit of it passed through checkpoints manned by inspectors of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

A seafood importer’s job has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. Increased security efforts at borders and ports of entry require more attention to detail than ever. The FDA has more than doubled its food-cargo inspections since passage of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act in 2002. Importers must maintain all the paperwork required by each agency. Buyers who deal with imported seafood should be cognizant of the challenges importers face. Here’s a primer on the regs, technology and challenges involved in importing seafood.

Q. Which agency oversees U.S. seafood imports?

The FDA, which is responsible for ensuring the safety and legality of Americans’ food supply. All imported products must meet the same standards as domestic goods and are subject to FDA inspections. Donald Kraemer, acting director for the office of seafood at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says that inspectors establish their priorities based on two broad categories: risk and history.

“When we look at products and importers, there is a variety of risks,” Kraemer says. “[With] ready-to-eat products, we look for salmonella and other contamination concerns. With fresh fish, it’s more likely to be histamines. Our highest priority, without a doubt, is to look at food-safety issues.”

The FDA screening process has halted many unsafe products, Kraemer says, such as those contaminated with bacteria or showing traces of illegal antibiotics. The agency keeps a database of offenders and tracks trends on violations regarding products and exporting countries.

“Clearly if you’re importing products from one of the firms on our list, you can expect some involvement from the FDA,” he says.

FDA inspectors have the right to refuse any shipment that does not meet U.S. standards of cleanliness and accuracy.

One particular red flag, says Kraemer, is hard for inspectors to miss: “Filth. Presence of an indicator organism [such as insect fragments] leads us to believe [a product] was handled in an unsanitary environment. There’s a whole world of things that fit into the category of filth.”

In short, imported seafood must comply with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Misbranding infractions, which could include deceptive listings of species and inaccurate weights, are common violations. Refused products are typically held by CBP and refrigerated only at the importer’s request — and expense — until they are cleared, which can take up to several days. Depending on the violation, the product may be destroyed or the importer fined, or both.

Q. Has anything made importing seafood more efficient?

Prior notice and the Internet. The Bioterrorism Act, in effect since December 2003, mandates that the FDA be notified (online at www.access.fda.gov) in advance of a product’s arrival at a port of entry. Prior notice must be given no more than five days before a product’s arrival, and no fewer than two hours if transported by land, four hours if carried by air or rail, and eight hours if shipped as ocean cargo. Both agencies say the process has become an important tool in the nation’s food defense efforts.

Also increasing efficiency is the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which was established in 1963 by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Codex Alimentarius is a collection of international food standards designed to protect the health of consumers and facilitate fair practices in the food trade. There are 174 member nations that agree to comply with Codex standards, helping to speed products through inspections and provide a measure of accountability on the part of exporting firms.

Q. What are the top seafood-exporting countries into the United States?

Canada is the top exporter of seafood and in 2004 shipped $2.1 billion U.S. (about 20 percent of the total) of seafood across the border, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Thailand and China place second and third, with seafood imports worth $1.4 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively.

Q. What role does the Customs and Border Protection play in the import-inspection process?

CBP enforces some 400 laws for 40 government agencies, including the FDA. In this capacity, CBP collects antidumping duties on behalf of the Department of Commerce, according to Michael Craig, chief of trade compliance and facilitation, Office of Field Operations for CBP.

“Within the last 18 months, CBP has developed procedural measures [forcing] importers to obtain significantly increased entry bonds [see Top Story, p. 26], along with conducting enforcement actions to counter highly organized evasions of these anti-dumping duties,” Craig says.

CBP teams with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate anti-dumping duty evasion cases in order to prosecute violators and recover lost revenue. The agency also works closely with NMFS, routinely providing electronic data to the Department of Commerce for the use of its various agencies.

Q. What seafood products are under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

 FWS has jurisdiction over any seafood product or species protected by the Endangered Species Act. It is charged with inspecting a shipment’s CITES certification. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a voluntary international agreement between governments that places controls on the trade of sturgeon meat and sturgeon caviar from the Caspian Sea, for example. CITES accords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens or as processed products. The United States has been a CITES member since it was established in 1975.

For more information on FDA import regulations, visit www.fda.gov.

Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com




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