There may be as many opinions about the safety of imported seafood as there are types of imported seafood. The American palate is currently limited to about 10 favored species, yet in other countries, edible kinds of seafood number in the dozens or perhaps hundreds.
Compared with our taste for meat and poultry, American consumers don’t eat that many seafood-based meals. Statistics from 2012 show that we consumed 14.6 pounds of seafood per capita in this country, compared to 80.4 pounds of chicken, 57.5 pounds of beef and 45.5 pounds of pork, and all those numbers have declined in recent years.
When we do eat seafood, occupying our plates most often will be, in order of popularity, shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, tilapia, Alaska pollock, Pangasius (a type of imported catfish), crab, cod, catfish and clams.
According to NOAA Fisheries FishWatch.gov, shrimp is the number-one seafood import to the U.S. market, with most of that product coming from Asia and Ecuador. Our imported salmon mainly comes from Canada, Norway and Chile; imported tilapia (often found in fish tacos) comes from China, Indonesia, Ecuador and Honduras; scallops come from China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Argentina and Honduras; mussels from Canada, New Zealand and Chile; clams from Asia and Canada, and oysters from China, South Korea and Canada.
The dollar value of approximately 1,500 imported seafood products is more than $10.4 billion and constitutes a “large and growing annual seafood trade deficit,” FishWatch notes.
Perceived risks of imported seafood
Because 80-90 percent of the seafood we consume is imported (with about half of that farm-raised), those who eat it are exposed to whatever level of safety practices exist in the exporting country and onward. A chain of potential risk follows from the catch to the processing facility, to the ships, trains or trucks bringing the seafood here, and to subsequent handling of the product at stores, fish markets, restaurants and in-home kitchens.
Recent recalls of imported seafood and associated foodborne illness outbreaks have combined to raise concerns about how safe it is to consume. There are bacterial hazards such as Vibrio in raw oysters, as well as mercury in fish and adulterants in feed and other contamination tied to industrial pollution.
Recent imported seafood recalls have involved processed products such as smoked salmon, herring and other fish products from Asia and Africa for potential Listeria and Clostridium botulinum contamination and for inadequate processing.
Contaminants are a growing concern. A recent North Carolina study revealed that one-quarter of the seafood imported from Asia and available at retail outlets in that state had detectable levels of formaldehyde.
In China, several antibiotics have been found in farm-raised fish such as tilapia, including leuco-malachite green, which FDA banned for aquaculture use in 1983 because of “serious toxicity.” Three-quarters of the tilapia we eat in this country comes from China.
“When we do our outbreak alerts, seafood has the highest level of illness per consumption of any of the food that we track. We don’t eat that much seafood, and that’s the difference,” says David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s food safety program.
Concerns over seafood safety are overblown and can usually be tied to a hidden agenda, says Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute, whose membership includes foreign and domestic producers operating businesses “from water to table,” as he puts it.
He says that environmental activists have used mercury as the “poster child for their own agenda” to shut down coal-fired power plants. The result, in his view, is that consumers aren’t taking sufficient advantage of a healthy dietary choice.
“The up-to-date science even from [the World Health Organization] says the real concern is that we’re warning people away from a healthy protein,” Gibbons says. “There’s a Harvard University study that shows 85,000 preventable deaths a year come from low Omega 3 intake, so we’re talking about something that can prevent heart disease and strokes and things like that, but it’s wrapped up in a number of different agendas.”
However, a 2010 survey reported by SeaFood Business Magazine showed that, for American consumers, seafood safety was the most important factor and trumped other concerns about sustainability (wild-caught vs. farm-raised), type of seafood or even price.
“The mindset of most consumers is not sustainability of a certain species – it’s farmed or wild, or imported or domestic,” said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, which conducted the study.
The continuing rise of aquaculture
Aquaculture, or farm-raising seafood, appears to be the future of the industry, particularly when the ocean catch may be at its limit and the cultural tradition of fishing is declining in some countries.
Foreign countries have embraced aquaculture to a much greater extent than the U.S., which has been ranked 13th in total such production. China, India and Vietnam are the top three aquaculture producers in the world today.
As aquaculture production has grown around the world, safety questions have grown along with it. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is tasked with regulating imported seafood safety, issued a country-wide Import Alert in August on five species of aquaculture fish imported from China because of illegal drugs and additives.
Dr. Steven M. Solomon, FDA’s associate director for global operations and policy, told Congress in May of this year that FDA has 13 officers stationed in three Chinese cities to “strengthen the safety, quality, and effectiveness of FDA-regulated products produced in China for export to the U.S.”
Among other overseas activities, Solomon stated that FDA officials have arranged workshops for members of the Chinese aquaculture industry to share information on best practices and provide a “clearer understanding” of the agency’s requirements.
The regulatory arena
The seafood industry got out ahead of pending Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) rules back in 1997 by voluntarily operating under a set of FDA preventive controls known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulations.
“FSMA expands seafood HAACP to other programs,” says Gibbons of NFI. “We have food safety scientists and regulators, not activists, who looked at the available food safety systems and said, ‘Yes, seafood HAACP works and should be expanded.'”
HACCP helps manage risk in the industry by, as FDA explains it, “analyzing and controlling biological, chemical and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.”
In the case of imported seafood, this means inspecting foreign processing facilities, sampling seafood destined for U.S. markets, sampling imported product once in this country, inspecting seafood importers, evaluating those who want to import seafood, and assessing a foreign country’s programs and information.
Along with all this activity, FDA has implemented a screening system for imports called PREDICT (for Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting). The agency uses PREDICT to target higher-risk products for examination and sampling to help reduce delays in shipping lower-risk products.
Plunkett of CSPI notes that FDA is responsible for regulating 80 percent of our food supply but has inadequate resources to do such a huge job. FDA may inspect 2 percent of food imports to the U.S. each year and, as a result, has a tough time catching problems with seafood or any other food product, he says.
“There’s an increasing rate of what they have to look at each year,” Plunkett says. “You’ve got to consider that food comes in 300 or whatever number of ports that we’ve got. There are no rules on where it enters. Food comes in by ship, by air and by truck, so where do you place the resources?”
PREDICT and implementation of FSMA rules may help with the situation, he and others say, although only time will tell. Under FSMA, FDA must inspect at least 600 foreign facilities and double that number every year for the next five years, which could prove difficult, if not impossible, without additional funding.
‘Fish fraud’ and consumer trends
Imported seafood is sometimes mislabeled and sold under another name, a practice known as “species substitution” or “fish fraud.” Food Safety News reported earlier this year that an estimated one-third of seafood sold by retailers and restaurants in the U.S. is mislabeled.
This can become a serious food-safety issue when someone consumes puffer fish when it’s labeled as monkfish and then develops a potentially life-threatening illness. It happened in 2007 in Chicago when two people became ill after eating homemade soup containing puffer fish, and one was hospitalized with severe illness.
U.S. consumers may become wary as headlines periodically warn them about safety issues connected with imported seafood, but chances are they will continue to order it in restaurants and buy it for preparation at home.
A lot of the concern is overblown, NFI’s Gibbons asserts. “There’s a lot of noise associated with imported seafood, but the rhetoric does not match the reality,” he says.
Plunkett says he eats shrimp and fish sticks, not really knowing where they come from. Gibbons says he probably eats four seafood meals per week at least.
They’re certainly not alone. Trends among U.S. consumers include more mild whitefish and farm-raised seafood, from both domestic and overseas sources, and seafood imports are likely to increase. In 2009, we imported more seafood than we did beer and wine or coffee, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Whether the food we eat is domestic- or foreign-sourced, we all have to take responsibility for our own food safety, Plunkett points out.
“It doesn’t really matter if [what you eat] came from overseas or the farmer next door or the patch in your backyard, it’s got the same problem,” he says. “Be sure you cook it appropriately, watch out for cross-contamination, and be sure to wash your food, particularly if you’re going to eat it raw. Do some things to protect yourself.”© Food Safety News