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Formaldehyde Detected in Supermarket Fish Imported from Asia

1 in 4 sampled fish contaminated

A large number of fish imported from China and Vietnam and sold in at least some U.S. supermarkets contain unnatural levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, according to tests performed and verified by researchers at a North Carolina chemical engineering firm and North Carolina State University.

Around 25 percent of all the fish purchased from supermarkets by researchers in the Raleigh, N.C., area were found to contain formaldehyde, a toxic chemical compound commonly used as a medical disinfectant or embalming agent. All of the fish found to contain the compound were imported from Asian countries, and it was not found in fish from the U.S. or other regions.

The researchers only collected samples from supermarkets around Raleigh, N.C., and could not comment on whether or not the same results could be applied to fish sold nationwide.

Formaldehyde is illegal in food beyond any naturally occurring trace amounts. But, according to chemical engineer A. James Attar and his colleagues who conducted the tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not test any imported fish for formaldehyde contamination, and only 4 percent of imported fish gets tested for any contaminants at all.

“The look on my face when we found this – it was a complete shocker,” said Jason Morton, Attar’s colleague at N.C.-based Appealing Products, Inc.

Attar, Morton and another colleague at Appealing Products, Matthew Schwartz, came across the alarming revelation when they set out to validate a new formaldehyde test they developed for Bangladeshi clients who needed a cheap way to detect contaminated fish.

To verify the accuracy of their test, the team purchased domestic and imported fish from supermarkets around Raleigh, NC, with the intent of purposefully contaminating them with formaldehyde and then verifying that their test worked.

Instead, they found that about one in four fish was already contaminated with formaldehyde. The commonality between all the contaminated fish? They were imported from Asian countries, predominantly China and Vietnam.

Not all of the Asian fish were contaminated, but many were, Attar said.

The FDA has not had the opportunity to analyze the fish samples tested by Appealing Products, nor has the agency had the opportunity to review the test methods utilized.

“The FDA’s priority is to ensure that both domestic and imported seafood is safe and that we are protecting consumers from products that can cause illness,” the agency told Food Safety News. “To accomplish this, FDA oversees a comprehensive food safety program designed to ensure the safety of all seafood sold in the United States. This prevention-oriented program includes risk based inspections, product testing, and assessments of foreign countries regulation of aquaculture facilities.”

All foods imports entering the U.S. are screened electronically by the FDA. A subset of those foods are physically inspected at rates based on the potential risk associated with them, with some samples undergoing lab analysis.

“FDA encourages anyone who has evidence that an FDA regulated product violates food safety laws and regulations to contact FDA,” the agency added.

Attar and Morton stopped short of accusing Asian fish companies of intentionally adding formaldehyde to fish to prevent spoilage, though it appears to be a common problem in Bangladesh, where formaldehyde might preserve fish when refrigerators or ice aren’t available. (Think of frogs preserved for dissection in a high-school science lab.)

Attar and his team first uncovered the issue in February 2013, and then spent six months routinely testing samples, finding the same results. Their results were then verified by researchers at North Carolina State.

Attar said the sampling was restricted to purchases from Raleigh only and might not reflect fish in supermarkets nationwide.

“But, empirically, this is what we found,” he added.

Formaldehyde is present in some fish at small, naturally occurring levels. But everything observed in the Asian fish found that they were contaminated with far higher-than-normal or acceptable levels, Attar said.

The team tested whether or not levels of formaldehyde increased in cuts of fish as they aged, but the levels remained the same. They also tested the same species harvested from both Chinese and U.S. companies, finding that the Chinese-caught fish contained formaldehyde, while the U.S.-caught fish of the same species did not.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the U.S. imports approximately 91 percent of its seafood. China alone accounts for approximately 89 percent of global aquaculture production.

Appealing Products’ formaldehyde test costs approximately $1 per swab, which is applied to a cut of fish and turns purple in the presence of formaldehyde. The company has shipped 100,000 tests to Bangladesh and anticipates orders from companies in other Asian countries. More information on the tests can be found at formaldehydetests.com.

Documented instances of intentional formaldehyde contamination of food have occurred in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.

Attar and Morton said that their evidence makes a strong case for improved testing on seafood imports in the U.S., especially from Asian countries.

“I cannot say that companies are adding formaldehyde to fish, but our findings are higher than what naturally occurs,” Morton said.

© Food Safety News
  • George Costich

    Another of the endless number examples of the total incompeteance of the FDA

  • Fish Monger

    I am wonder if Red Lobster Get there Tilapia & Salmon From China, Vietnam Thailand, I know that Walmart has there Sea food Imported from china & Vietnam just Take a Look at the Back of there sea food,

  • Allan Bremner

    Simmer down folks. Many Gadiform species – cods, hakes (yes of American origin) – and Mycyphiforms produce formaldehyde in frozen storage in large amounts related to temperature of storage and duration of storage and frozen storage conditions (degree of temperature recycling). The phenomenon is natural as it is the fishes own enzymes that do it as they get to work on a compound present in the fish that, in life, adjusts osmotic balance (trimethylamine oxide).
    Land sakes! Don’t jump to prejudiced conclusions! Or call for impossible degrees of FDAurveillance.

    • johncoryat

      From the article:

      “The team tested whether or not levels of formaldehyde increased in cuts of fish as they aged, but the levels remained the same. They also tested the same species harvested from both Chinese and U.S. companies, finding that the Chinese-caught fish contained formaldehyde, while the U.S.-caught fish of the same species did not.”

  • guest

    And we want to accept processed chicken from China?

  • Kathy Heinisch

    I guess we can expect the same with the chicken that USA will be
    exporting to China for processing, which will be imported back into the
    USA..Why is Our food racking up more frequent flyer miles than the avg.
    consumer..Why is Chicken going to travel around the globe only to end
    back up on America’s consumer market?http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/09/how-chinese-processed-chicken-was-approved-for-export-to-usa/#.UjGqUT_W0WY

    • Jonathon

      In order to unemploy more American workers.

      • http://www.corruptioneruption.blogspot.com/ Laura StraightUp

        And poison the population. Syria, Obama style.

  • johncoryat

    At $1 a pop, this test should be available to consumers so we can test the fish we buy directly at the store. I certainly would be doing it. We buy primarily fresh fish harvested from American waters so the problem for us should be limited.

    • Thomas Stuart

      These tests are avaliable commercially to consumers. You can purchase them at, http://formaldehydetests.com/formaldehyde-swab-detector.

    • william skrobacz

      thank you for buying local fish,but beware of wolf in sheep skin. as a commercial fisherman(gloucester mass) i know many people will buy the 3.99$ fish over the 8.99 fish

    • Oginikwe

      The onus should fall on the people growing and/or processing the fish. Consumers should not have to be afraid of the food being sold to them nor jump through all kinds of hoops with test kits to find out it the food they spent their hard-earned money on will harm or kill them. Vote with your dollars and don’t buy it.

  • Mollie Morrissette

    Lets not forget that China is the country that most fisheries around the world ship their fish to be processed – where the fish is often processed using Sodium Tripolyphosphate – a neurotoxin. Read more about it here: http://truthaboutpetfood2.com/something-very-fishy and here: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/what-is-sodium-tripolyphosphate-doing-in-your-fish/.

    • Oginikwe

      Thank you for those links. :)

      • Mollie Morrissette

        You’re welcome.

  • Jon

    Name the packing companies

  • Leslie H

    I don’t really like commenting on these things because the noise factor is just so high it’s hard have any sort of rational, sensible, logical discussion. However, I cannot remain silent on this. Food is life. You don’t just sit by quietly when deadly chemicals are being sold in food and go home and sleep well.
    So, just to be clear, formaldehyde deemed “naturally occurring” is the exact same chemical as any from any other source. Calling it “naturally occurring” does not diminish the damage it does to cells. The levels are affected by many things. If one of them is storage time, well, maybe sending fish to China for “processing” and bringing it back to save $1/lb on it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe that might be fish we want to avoid. I don’t know. I’m just throwing out ideas here.
    And, on another note, seriously, this is not due to the incompetence of the FDA. The folks there are quite competent. There just aren’t enough of them working there any more. This is due to the gutting of FDA and the ever weakening power of the FDA. If we want a strong FDA, fully staffed with well trained, experienced people, if we want full spectrum testing, if we want to demand that companies prove a product is safe rather than forcing the feds to prove a product is unsafe with reduced staff and slashed budgets, we gotta pay for it. Some folks just do not want to pay for it, so, we get what we get. Pay a few $$ a pound more and get your fish and meat from a local farmer/fisherman at the farmer’s market. They ARE there. And don’t complain about reduced FDA services and reduced FDA power unless you’re willing to follow that complaint with, “Please return the fed tax structure to what it used to be and hire enough inspectors to do the job we need you to do.”

    • Mollie Morrissette

      Amen Leslie.

    • AWalton

      I’m so glad you added to a thoughtful discussion, Leslie. I agree with everything you’ve said and am dismayed at the lack of funding we put behind keeping our food, air, water safe for all of us. And I wish we’d spend more on educating young and old alike. There are too many of us easily duped by the “noise” and stupid talking points that are not in our own best interests.

    • Dave

      But – but – SOCIALISM!!!

  • Mollie Morrissette

    I stand corrected it is a “suspected” neurotoxicant. My references: OccupationalSafety and Health’s (NIOSH) Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh-rtecs/yk45bb90.html and http://scorecard.goodguide.com/chemical-profiles/summary.tcl?edf_substance_id=7758-29-4.

    • Sonia

      Mollie, you are absolutely correct, I have been studying environmental science for 3.5 yrs. now , earning my bachelor degree. I have done much research on china and yes, they dump e-waste into the ocean and contaminate the oceanic species and it travels reaching the U.S. not to mention the air pollution!! it’s ridiculous and irresponsible. I have to say; “why can’t they figure this out?” they talk down about Americans being stupid and lazy, yes, I worked with them in (Silicon Valley) Milpitas, CA. for many years and this is all the talk I heard and would argue with them. They laugh at Americans. I just can’t believe the disrespect all the way around.
      Thanks for sharing Mollie.

  • Mollie Morrissette

    Barry,

    I respect Food and Water Watch (Tony Corbo is a good friend of mine, BTW) and their report on STPP processing made me pause – regardless of which country is doing the processing. China is chosen simply because it is cost effective.

    Did you read FWW’s report? Here http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/what-is-sodium-tripolyphosphate-doing-in-your-fish/ and here http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/factsheet/whats-on-your-fish/.

    And don’t even get me started on China’s horrific, beyond the pale, food safety scandals of late. “Castigating” China is a job that no one wants or enjoys, it is forced upon us with each new food safety horror that emanates from that country. To not recognize or report that there is a problem there would be irresponsible.

    This is not about China v. the U.S. mind, need I point out it is U.S. importers are only happy to continue to do business there despite the food safety freak show in China.

    And the USDA should be ashamed of themselves for allowing processed chicken (raised in the U.S.) from China for human consumption. But I digress, that is another story.

  • Allan Bremner

    The article is too vague in details to accept this. FA is formed in FROZEN fish. If ‘ageing’ fillets at chill temperatures was done then negligible FA would be formed. If they ‘aged them in the frozen form it takes a month or so at -10C to get much formation and at -20C FA formation is much much slower and 3 month storage would be needed. The article is misleading. In newly caught fish e.g., hake brought to market within 3 days FA levels of 4mg/kg would not be unusual, whereas in frozen storage levels of 40mg/kg are common and 400mg/kg can be found depending on species, form, temperature and duration of storage. The article tells NOTHING of the species, whether frozen stored or not nor the history, age or origin of the fish. China (and other countries with cheaper labour/overheads) does much contract processing of frozen fish caught somewhere, frozen, thawed processed into fillets, re-frozen sent somewhere else (maybe even hoarded till prices rise or to meet market demand), repacked into consumer lots/retail lots/ trader lots and sent to another location e.g. distribution centre for shorter storage. Thus fish can commonly be thawed and frozen more than once and be 6 months to a year out of the water before its on retail or market display. Thus providing opportunity for FA formation. It is pointless to look at fresh (never frozen) local fish of the same species as comparison or local fish of short storage duration. Exception being if there is NO information in the vast literature on whether that individual species (or family of species) is a known FA producer.
    Until the nature of the samples is disclosed and the levels of FA are reported it is premature to jump the gun. Sure, this should be followed up but not in such a jingoistic vague manner. PS I first worked on FA detection in fish in 1974

  • guest

    There are no formaldehyde levels cited in this article, nor are there specific species of fish named. It is “fishy” that the scientists would make a press release without citing such specifics, or contacting FDA first about their concerns. More like an attempt to grab headlines than to present factual evidence. Then, with the pitch at the end about Appealing Products’ $1 swabs, methinks the gist of the article is an advert to sell testing swabs.

  • Whitney Prillaman-lynch

    Nothing left to say.. We just keeo getting screwed abd poisoned..one.way or another..

  • rapid-labs

    In Malaysia and Indonesia, we are also facing similar problem…but enforcement is challenging due to difficulty in sending every sample for lab testing. Therefore we have developed our own solution by empowering stakeholders to conduct their own quantitative testing & monitoring. For more info. refer to http://rapid-labs.net/products/

  • Ram Bhojwani

    I recently heard on cnn that they were going ship chickens to China to process and bring back to USA for our consumption how sick is that.

    IS THERE NO FDA OR CDC WATCHING AND PROTECTING US CITIZENS OR HAS LAW N ORDER BROKEN DOWN HERE AS WELL.
    IS THER ANYTHING BUT PROFIT FOR HUmAN ILLNESS.
    Check b4 you these products for your healths sake take care.

  • http://www.corruptioneruption.blogspot.com/ Laura StraightUp

    China happily poisons us. They already did with poisonous baby food. Those cheesy ass unethical feces eating short people got no reason to live. lol .. really, though. Come on, give China business… That’s just purposeful lowering of health standards.. This administration is conducting genocidal practices, they’re just not openly attacking us with Sarin gas. No wonder Obama points out THAT as the unacceptable way to kill your people. You’ve gotta do it HIS way. Effing despicable. Hope he chokes on his caviar.

    • Ren K.

      Of course. The idiot’s retort. When in doubt, blame Obama. Becauae this is a totally new thing. *facepalm*

  • Steve French

    This is terrible journalism based on a infallible test. The man who led to this innovation is a rogue chemical engineer who was dismissed by state and is on a mission to create a public pandemic. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in fish and sees an increase in its presence in tissue once the fish has been frozen.