« October 2007 Table of Contents
As China experiences growing pains, illegal vet-drug
usage goes unchecked
By Steven Hedlund
October 01, 2007
Americans can't read a newspaper or watch TV these days
without absorbing a report about China's food-safety
deficiencies and manufacturing woes. The list of unsafe or
counterfeit products the United States imports from China is
daunting - toothpaste, toys, tires, ceramic heaters, diabetes
test kits, pet food, juice. Unfortunately, farmed seafood is
usually among the Chinese goods the media identifies as harmful
Is this characterization fair? Or is China being singled
In June the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is
under increased pressure from the media, consumer-advocacy
groups and Congress to crack down on imports of unsafe or
counterfeit Chinese goods, placed an import alert on five
farmed-seafood species from China - shrimp, catfish, basa, eel
and dace, a carp relative - due to the increased presence of
illegal antibiotics and fungicides.
Under an import alert, a shipment is detained at the port of
entry until the U.S. importer provides third-party verification
from an FDA-accredited U.S. laboratory that the product is free
of banned veterinary drugs. Once five consecutive shipments are
confirmed to be clean, the foreign exporter is removed from the
list. Essentially, seafood suppliers are guilty until proven
The detention process is delaying shipments of Chinese
seafood at ports of entry for days, if not weeks, while private
labs test the products. The added costs are steep: Tests run
from $1,500 to $4,000 per container, and cold-storage fees
total thousands of dollars per month.
As if the extra costs weren't enough, some wholesale
distributors, retailers and foodservice operators are shunning
Chinese seafood due to the barrage of negative press, even
though the FDA has repeatedly emphasized that there's no
imminent public health threat.
The confusion among seafood buyers and consumers is fueled
by the misinformation. The mainstream press has commonly
referred to the import alert as a ban or an embargo, which are
misnomers. News reports have labeled all Chinese seafood as
tainted or contaminated, when only a minority of Asian farmers
use banned veterinary drugs. So consumers perceive that Chinese
seafood is inferior and may avoid eating it.
Antibiotics and fungicides are used to treat bacterial and
viral diseases and fungal infections in farmed fish. But some
antibiotics, such as fluoroquinolones, nitrofurans and
chloramphenicol, and fungicides, including malachite green and
gentian violet, are banned for use in aquaculture because
humans can develop a resistance to them; some are potential
However, despite consumer perception, aquaculture experts
assert that the use of illegal veterinary drugs is declining
not only in China but also across Asia.
"In my opinion and experience, the use of banned antibiotics
and fungicides in Asia has decreased considerably. That I will
[say] without any hesitation," says Rohana Subasinghe, senior
fishery resources officer for aquaculture for the United
Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. "I do not deny that
[farmers] use banned antibiotics and fungicides. But the usage
has reduced significantly.
"Have we singled out China?" he asks. "I believe so. Why?
Because China is so big. When China shakes, we all shake."
Small farmers produce about 80 percent of the world's farmed
seafood, and most of those who use illegal veterinary drugs are
unaware that they're using them, notes Subasinghe.
"These people are not necessarily very well educated," he
says. "So it is our responsibility to empower them to do a
better job. It is extremely important to make them aware of
global food-safety requirements and international-trading
standards - what's supposed to be used and what's not supposed
to be used. Extension is a must. However, many governments are
becoming increasingly incapable of providing good
"In many countries, you can buy [fish feed containing
illegal veterinary drugs] on the open market," adds Subasinghe.
"When it's freely available, you're basically setting a
precedence for [increased] usage."
Bill More, director and VP of the Aquaculture Certification
Council in Kirkland, Wash., puts some of the responsibility on
fish-feed manufacturers. Antibiotics are administered mostly
through fish feed.
"Unscrupulous salesman sell [farmers feed containing illegal
veterinary drugs] and don't tell them what it really is," says
More. "You'll see products like 'Make Your Shrimp Grow Faster'
and 'Happy Shrimp,' but they don't tell you what's in the
product; [the government] doesn't always require it. Small
farmers, especially, have been taken advantage of."
"Fishmeal prices have been quite high. So every feed
manufacturer in the world is looking for ways to minimize the
fishmeal inclusion level by utilizing alternate sources of
proteins and fats," notes George Chamberlain, president of the
Global Aquaculture Alliance in St. Louis. "In China, what would
normally be typical alternatives, for example, rendered animal
byproducts, are huge red flags because they can't be sure that
they are absolutely free of all [illegal] antibiotics."
Since 2003, the ACC has audited shrimp farms and processing
facilities under the Best Aquaculture Practices, a set of
environmental, socioeconomic and food-safety standards
developed by the GAA. So far, there are about 70,000 metric
tons of farm-certified product from 40 certified farms and
315,000 metric tons of product from 66 certified plants in 15
countries, says the ACC's More.
"The whole point is to test upstream and reduce the need to
test at the end of the pipeline," explains Chamberlain. "With
end-of-the-pipeline testing, where millions of pounds of
product are emptying into ports of entry, attempting to
understand the history of a product with a few spot tests is
futile. It's much more productive to test at the point of
The ACC recently added fluoroquinolones, including
ciprofloxacin, enrofloxacin, sarafloxacin, flumequine and
oxolinic acid, to the list of antibiotics that private labs are
required to test for on behalf of certified shrimp farms.
More concurs that the use of illegal veterinary drugs in
Asia is falling.
"It's very rare now that we find a product that tests
positive," says More. "This year, we've taken over 1,000 tests
from China alone from the two plants that we certified. We're
making them submit tests through third-party labs every week.
And these two facilities have been completely clean for almost
two years now.
"But these are two plants that sell to companies like Darden
and Wal-Mart," he adds. "So you really don't expect to find
[tainted] product in plants like that. It's the other plants
you have to worry about. Most conscientious farms, especially
those integrated with processing plants, don't use illegal
antibiotics and fungicides anymore."
It's a classic example of a few bad apples spoiling the
entire bunch. The Asian farmers who use banned veterinary drugs
- unknowingly or intentionally - are in the minority, say
aquaculture experts and seafood importers.
"It was a very small group of [catfish] growers in a very
small region of China [Fuzhon] that were unsupervised," says
Bill Pearce, U.S. spokesman for the China Catfish Association
in Mechanicsville, Va. "It originated at one or two or maybe
three feed [manufacturers]. The CIQ [China Inspection and
Quarantine] inspection may have failed at those three feed
[manufacturers]. The growers thought they were buying the same
feed all along, and the packers thought they were buying the
same catfish all along. Then it came to the United States."
China's economic explosion
China's recent food-safety deficiencies and manufacturing
woes are a casualty of industrialization, hypothesizes Stephen
Mihm, assistant professor of American history at the University
of Georgia and author of "A Nation of Counterfeiters,"
published in August.
"China may be a very different country, but in many ways it
is a younger version of [the United States]," wrote Mihm in an
Aug. 26 Boston Globe column. "The sooner we understand this,
the sooner we can realize that China's fast and loose brand of
commerce is not an expression of national character, much less
a conspiracy to poison us and our pets, but a phase in the
country's development. Call it adolescent capitalism, if you
will: bursting with energy, exuberant, dynamic. Like any
teenager, China's behavior is also maddening, irresponsible and
dangerous. But it is a phase, and understanding it that way
gives us some much-needed perspective, as well as some tools
for handling the problem."
China's economy, the world's fourth largest with a gross
domestic product of $2.7 trillion in 2006, has averaged annual
growth of 9.5 percent over the past three decades. Since 1978,
the Chinese government has been reforming its economy from a
Soviet-style, centrally planned one to a more market-oriented
At the same time, farmed-seafood production in China has
ballooned from just 4.6 million metric tons in 1985 to a
whopping 43.3 million metric tons in 2005, according to the
FAO. China represents nearly 70 percent of global aquaculture
The United States imported 525 million metric tons of
seafood from China in 2006, representing 21 percent of total
U.S. seafood imports, more than any other country, reports the
National Marine Fisheries Service. More than 80 percent of the
U.S. seafood supply is imported.
When the FDA issued its import alert in June,
supply-shortage concerns immediately surfaced. China
represented 12 percent of total U.S. shrimp imports of 590
million metric tons last year, and U.S. catfish and basa
imports from China have also increased dramatically over the
past two years.
But the supply-shortage concerns were short-lived.
"Fortunately, the scope of business is such that there's
always something somewhere," says Randy Petersen, VP of Berdex
International in Vancouver, Wash., which imports shrimp and
processed-fish products from China. The import alert "is
causing, in all honestly, zero impact when you're talking about
what the customers see. There are a few more hoops to jump
through internally, but other than that the customers aren't
seeing any [supply] shortages regardless of the country of
Despite the added costs tied to the import alert, Beaver
Street Fisheries in Jacksonville, Fla., like most importers,
has been unable to pass the increase along to its
"We're in a commodity business, so pricing really depends on
the commodities," says Carlos Sanchez, an import buyer for
Beaver Street Fisheries, which imports breaded shrimp and some
catfish from China.
"If you've got catfish on the market and there's a market
price for catfish, you have to sell it at market price. If
you've got breaded shrimp, there's a little bit more leeway
because there are all sorts of specifications that will go into
the percentage of breading and the type of breading," he
explains. "But it's a commodity-driven market, so you have to
be within commodity-price ranges regardless of the testing
"We don't let [China] ship anything that can't pass the test
over there, and they're pretty much using the same methodology
we're using," adds Sanchez. "So the delays and the expenses
have increased, but it's better to know in advance that the
product is in compliance."
For importers, communicating to their customers that their
product is tested extensively for illegal veterinary drugs
before it even reaches U.S. shores is an equally important
"When this became front-page news, you better believe every
one of our customers and potential ones asked, 'What are you
doing to ensure that our product is top-quality and free of
[illegal veterinary drugs]?'" says Matt Fass, VP of Maritime
Products International in Newport News, Va., which imports
catfish from China.
"Of course, we try to provide a lot of that background
anyway," he explains. "So in some ways, we're not doing things
all that much differently now because we were already doing a
lot of checking. But it took a lot of our time and energy to
put more of that in a readable, transmittable form for
customers. Even though we had a lot of confidence in our
system, we did additional testing in domestic labs. A lot of
customers, no matter what they saw being done overseas, wanted
that extra level of testing here, and I can certainly
understand why they would want that under the current
Once clarified, most retailers and foodservice operators
appreciate the extent to which product is tested at home and
overseas, say importers. Explaining this to the mainstream
press, which influences consumers' purchasing decisions, is a
much harder task.
"I had an interesting interview with a local reporter here,"
says Fass. "He wanted to know on every container that comes in
how many fish get tested, and he couldn't believe that it might
only be 10 or 15 fish. I said, 'Well, you do understand that
every fish you test gets destroyed.' He said, 'Shouldn't half
of the fish be tested?' Well, you're not going to throw out
half of a container. And not only that, but you're testing for
antibiotic usage so you can take statistical samples from
different date codes, and it's either in there or it's not,
because fish don't receive antibiotics individually."
"Initially, we had a lot of consumers calling in and asking
questions because they were confused," notes Sanchez of Beaver
Street Fisheries. "They were asking what products were
recalled, and there was no recall. The average consumer isn't
familiar with import
terminology. Newspapers [ran headlines]
like 'Chinese seafood embargoed' or 'Chinese seafood banned,'
and that's a misnomer. So consumers were confused."
However, few seafood importers report losing customers due
to the onslaught of negative press about China's food-safety
"We've had only two or three accounts that have actually
said they won't buy Chinese any more," says Troy Turkin,
executive VP of sales and marketing for Newport International
in St. Petersburg, Fla., which imports crabmeat and tilapia
from China. "But they've started buying other products of other
crab that we import, so technically there hasn't been a
"We're still concerned that some [buyers] may think that
Chinese seafood is unsafe," he adds. "We do tests. We do
independent audits. We have our own lab at our corporate
office. We even have our own Asian-based inspectors."
FDA under fire
Amid the controversy surrounding China's food-safety
deficiencies, the FDA's import-alert system and its ability to
monitor the U.S. food supply, of which 13 percent is imported,
have come under fire. The FDA inspects only about 1 percent of
total seafood imports.
In July, David Nelson, senior investigator for the House
Committee on Energy and Commerce, testified before the
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that the
import-alert system is ripe for manipulation.
An unnamed FDA deputy lab director told Nelson's team of
investigators that private lab tests of food imports are
inaccurate, adding that some work is "scary." Another FDA
official said private labs are "driven by financial rather than
"The FDA has known for years about the widespread use of
antibiotics and fungicides to treat farmed fish from China,"
said Nelson. "It appears, however, that only after the
subcommittee and other congressional committees began to
investigate the FDA's less-than-aggressive approach did the FDA
issue its alert."
William Hubbard, senior advisor for the Coalition for a
Stronger FDA in Chapel Hill, N.C., also testified before the
subcommittee, arguing that the FDA's food program is woefully
underfunded and understaffed.
In 1971, the FDA's food program comprised almost half of the
agency's total budget. Today, it represents about one-quarter,
says Hubbard, whose group was formed last year by the last
three Health and Human Services secretaries to lobby Congress
to increase the FDA's budget.
Historically, the FDA, like most agencies, has been funded
by federal appropriations. But in 1992, Congress allowed the
FDA to charge user fees to drug companies to hire staff, which
can inspect only drugs and medical devices.
The number of user-fee employees has jumped from 204 in 1994
to 1,423 in 2005, while the number of non-user fee employees
has slipped from 9,167 in 1994 to 8,181 in 2005, says
"Subliminally, [Congress] is saying that the FDA is getting
more money, so it sends the appropriated money somewhere else.
The problem with that is you're shifting resources from food to
drugs and medical devices," he says. "Internally, the FDA has
tried to point out to the decision makers in Washington for
several years now that the food program is very poorly
What's more, the FDA employs only 450 inspectors to cover
more than 400 ports, notes Hubbard.
"This year, they'll see close to 20 million shipments of
food, drugs and other commodities," he says. "There's no way
they can look at very much of that."
Don Kelley, VP of Western Edge Seafood in Bethlehem, Pa.,
who visits the company's catfish suppliers in China two to
three times a year, says the FDA's import-alert system is
adequate given the agency's lack of resources.
"Obviously, FDA inspectors are limited as to the number of
inspections they can perform," he explains. "Without addressing
the [need to] increase the FDA's budget, this is probably the
best system that could be in place."
In addition to FDA inspectors, private labs are also
overwhelmed due to the import alert, notes the ACC's More.
"I've been trying to get a sample from Guatemala tested at
[an FDA-accredited] lab in Florida, and my lead time on this
sample is 45 days," he says. "I asked them, 'Why?' And they
said, 'Because we're under contract to do all of these samples
from China, and we're backlogged.'"
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. As the use of
illegal veterinary drugs continues to decline, Chinese
exporters will be removed from the import-alert list, easing
the workload on the FDA and private labs. On Sept. 18, as this
issue was going to press, Zhangjiang Guolian Aquatic Products
Co., a Chinese shrimp producer, became the first exporter to be
removed from the list.
In the meantime, importers will continue to assure their
customers, and consumers, that the seafood they source from
China is safe.
"We went from being off the radar screen, which a lot of
times we are as an industry," says Maritime Products' Fass, "to
being the bull's eye."
Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at