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One Man's Opinion: FDA fails with fish

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
August 01, 2007

How many whacks to the head does it take? The U.S. seafood industry has suffered long enough under the less than watchful eye of the Food and Drug Administration. If you sell fish, call up your congressman and demand that it be under the control of the Department of Agriculture, just like it's done in almost every other country in the world. Clearly, the FDA is not up to the job.

The latest evidence that the FDA is the seafood industry's worst enemy came to light in July, during the brouhaha over the FDA's import alert over the use of banned antibiotics by Chinese fish farmers [see Newsline story, page 8]. It was a story the media immediately jumped all over.

On Sunday, July 15, more than half of The New York Times Op-Ed section was devoted to piscine punditry. And what tasty morsels did the paper's readers digest? They learned that sushi bars serve imported tuna that has "tasteless red flesh that has often been frozen for months and treated with chemicals to preserve its color." In another NYT piece, "Catfish with a Side of Scombroid," readers were told that "if you're a shady seafood dealer trying to unload a container of dodgy shrimp or tilapia, chances are 98 in 100 it will make it into the United States."

Confidence in the FDA's ability to ensure the safety of the nation's seafood supply took yet another hit when a House subcommittee ordered beleaguered FDA officials to Capitol Hill in late July. The congressmen wanted to know why the FDA's decision to close seven out of its 13 testing labs would make the FDA's inspection program more effective. At the same hearing, representatives heard from an oversight agency that the FDA's inspection effort was woefully inadequate. That's not surprising since the number of FDA inspectors has decreased at the same time imports have soared.

The bad news about tainted seafood and the FDA's inability to adequately inspect seafood imports is not going to go away any time soon. Countries like China have shown they have a very hard time controlling their fragmented seafood industries. Chinese authorities, for example, conceded that the tainted imports that triggered the FDA import alert were from plants that were not even registered with health authorities. And who really thinks the FDA will suddenly get the resources needed to do a credible job?

USDA, on the other hand, does a much better job of inspecting imports. An estimated 16 percent of the U.S. meat imports is inspected, compared to less than 1 percent of seafood. The USDA is also more efficient; the agency limits imports to just 10 ports, while the FDA has inspectors spread out at 90 ports. While inspection of seafood by USDA is no guarantee that consumer confidence will be quickly restored, it's clear the agency has more resources and clout with Congress. Consider, for example, that COOL labeling applies only to seafood, not to meat and poultry.

As long as the FDA is in charge of seafood inspection, the seafood industry will continue to take hits from the media, consumer confidence will suffer and sales will be slower than they should. There is a better way and the letters are USDA.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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