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Editor's Note: China lessons

By Fiona Robinson, Editor in Chief
August 01, 2007

China, China, China. You couldn't pick up a paper or news weekly last month without reading about the five seafood species farmed in China that are on the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration's import alert list. (If you've been on a long vacation on a remote island and need a primer on the full details, 
read the Newsline story on page 8.)

Everyone has an opinion about China. Most food scares like this one are here and gone in a flash 
in the mainstream press. Considering seafood from China accounts for roughly 21 percent of U.S. 
edible seafood imports, discussion of this fiasco will likely drag out longer than usual. Here are a few take-home lessons from the China seafood debacle:

• The press doesn't always get the story right. Many respectable news sources (including the New York Times and Associated Press) missed the mark by reporting that seafood from China was banned, which is far from the truth. Shipments containing any of the five species are being detained at ports of entry 
for inspection. And bass is not on the list - but basa is.

• Times like these show how deeply rooted protectionist views remain in the United States. The Southern Shrimp Alliance and other groups are using the China situation to scare consumers away from imported product (see Newsline story, page 12). If the domestic supply was enough to fulfill burgeoning demand for seafood, buyers wouldn't have to go to China to source seafood in the first place.

• There will always be companies, either here or in China, that try to make easy money. It's possible some seafood buyers went to smaller farms in China because their prices were better than the big outfits and they weren't on the FDA's import-alert radar screen. It's also possible those smaller farms unwittingly used substances on their farms that are banned in the United States. Or the substances could have been used on purpose. We may never know the truth.

• Politicians and industry professionals have called for sweeping changes here in the United States to fix the import inspection system. Some think that as a result of the fiasco, the FDA should pass control of seafood over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture [see Peter Redmayne's "One Man's Opinion" column on page 14]. Yes, the FDA is the domestic scapegoat. But in a country that is still trying to implement Homeland Security measures post 9/11, import food inspections will remain a low priority. And we all know how willing the government is to accept change.

The only change that will make a difference has to be made in China. The farmers need to learn responsible farming practices, and why fluorquinolones, nitrofurans and other substances are banned in the United States. Chinese seafood imports may slow down for the short term, but in the long term, buyers will continue to look to China for a variety of reasons, namely because they have product to fulfill growing demand for seafood.


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