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More Foreign Seafood Presents Safety Challenge

Americans have an appetite for imported seafood.  The U.S. consumed 2.395 billion pounds of foreign seafood last year.  That was about 85 percent of the market.

Eating more fish is supposed to be more healthy, but some question how safe foreign seafood can be when only about 1 percent of those imports are inspected at the border.

Loss of seafood production in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico from the two-month old BP oil spill will probably mean even more foreign fish landing on American dinner plates.

canned-tuna-featured.jpgPast and present U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials have long said the way to make sure foreign seafood imports are safe is not to delay more of them at the border but to do more inspections at foreign processing facilities to hold them to our standards.

FDA is doing more and more of that.  A Feb. 16 warning letter released this week to the Songkla Canning Public Company Limited in Muang, Thailand provides one such example.

FDA inspected the Thai seafood processing facility last Dec. 7-9, finding the company had “serious violations” of U.S. seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations.  No seafood HACCP plan means the fish or fishery products from the facility are considered “adulterated” under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

“Accordingly, your canned tuna, pouch packed tuna and pasteurized crab meat are adulterated, in that they have been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health,” the warning letter said.

The warning letter makes it clear that the Thai seafood processor must come into compliance with FDA standards or it will not be able to export its products to the U.S.  Facilities not producing product in compliance with those standards are subjects of FDA Import Alerts, red-flagging foreign firms that are not in compliance.

The canned tuna, pouch packed tuna, and pasteurized crabmeat processor in Thailand was given 30 days to respond to FDA concerns.   The agency provided a detailed list of its requirements.

Among them were:

-The need “to ensure that the time and temperature exposures during these cumulative periods are properly controlled to prevent the formation of scombrotoxin (histamine) or other heat stable toxins, such as from Staphylococcus aureus. These steps include, for example, storage of raw fresh fish, thawing of frozen fish, butchering, pre-cooking to prepare the fish for meat removal (i.e., not a pathogen reduction cook), cooling of pre-cooked fish, deskinning, cleaning (removal of meat), flaking/chopping, metal detecting, defect sorting, packing, and other processing steps after receiving and prior to when the product enters the retorts.”

-The company’s “HACCP plans for canned tuna and pouch packed tuna list critical limits at the “Receiving” critical control point for frozen or fresh fish that are not adequate to control the hazard of scombrotoxin formation.”

-“Pasteurized crab meat HACCP plan lists inadequate critical limits at the “Pasteurization” critical control point to control the hazard listed as “Pathogen Survival” identified specifically as Clostridium botulinum.

-“Consequently, the critical time and temperature limits necessary to control the hazard of Clostridium botulinum growth and toxin formation at each critical control point are required as part of your HACCP plan.”

FDA said the Thai company also needed to give attention to its low-acid canning operation.  Specifically, it urged attention to seam specifications to achieve a proper hermetic seal.

While 45 import alerts involving Thailand, many involving seafood products, are currently on file, none yet involve Songkla Canning.  Yet the issues raised in the February letter have not been “closed out” either.

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