Laboratory tests on Washington state’s exotic shellfish export, the geoduck clam, have found no evidence of unsafe or excessive levels of arsenic, rebutting claims made by Chinese food safety authorities that followed a sudden ban placed on U.S. shellfish from the West Coast.
The ban has already devastated shellfish growers in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Northern California, said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington. It also affects clams, oysters and other shellfish from U.S. waters.
China is the world’s largest importer of geoducks (pronounced “gooey duck”), with more than half of all the harvest from Washington, British Columbia and Alaska getting shipped to China. With China cut off, there are few places for the harvest to go.
“This is having a disastrous impact out here,” Dewey told Food Safety News.
Over the holiday season, officials from the Washington State Department of Health responded to the Chinese claims by conducting laboratory testing of inorganic arsenic levels in several geoduck samples collected from the same area of Washington that grew the alleged arsenic-heavy shipment. In Alaska, other shellfish harvested were found with allegedly unsafe levels of another poisonous toxin.
Test results showed that, on average, arsenic was present in the geoduck bodies at a level of 0.327 parts per million (ppm), which falls below China’s legal limit of 0.5 ppm. Arsenic in the actual meat of the geoducks registered at 0.063 ppm, eight times lower than the limit (full test summary available here).
Officials are wondering if Chinese inspectors got their data from testing the skin of the geoducks, which is typically not eaten and contains much higher levels of arsenic. The health department tests revealed arsenic levels in the skin of 1.175 ppm, more than twice China’s limit.
U.S. officials are currently not certain which geoduck parts were tested by the Chinese, or what methods were used, according to Tim Church, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. Church added that the U.S. has no legal standard for arsenic in shellfish.
To double-check their results, the health department also hired a private laboratory to perform independent testing. That lab found its geoduck samples averaged 0.108 ppm across the skin, guts and meat, falling well below the results of the health department tests.
The health department handed its test results over to the Seafood Inspection Program within the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sent them to Chinese food safety authorities earlier this week. They have not yet received a response, and the ban remains in place.
“We turned around and got them responses as quickly as possible,” Dewey said. “We’re basically sitting here waiting with no additional communication.”
Vague export forms face blame
This whole debacle might have been avoided if the export forms for the geoduck shipment had allowed for more specificity in identifying the source from which the shellfish were harvested, Dewey explained.
On the forms, he said, the point-source of the shellfish is listed as “Area 67.” The problem is that while the contentious shipments of shellfish came from isolated areas in Washington and Alaska, “Area 67” encompasses all the coastal regions from Northern California through Alaska’s Pacific Coast. As a result, Chinese authorities were forced to ban shellfish from all of Area 67.
“This is not a reflection on China – they were just looking at the form,” Dewey said. “In my opinion, it’s the problem with the form and our inability to put more specific information on it.”
He compared the vagueness of the export forms to the detailed amount of information available within national shellfish programs, which easily trace shipments back to specific shippers and harvest locations. If there’s a contamination problem domestically, shellfish growers can easily isolate the problem instead of shutting down the entire industry.
“It didn’t take long for both Alaska and Washington to figure out where this problem was coming from,” Dewey said. “We’ve communicated to China that these were isolated areas – not a problem with the entire industry.”
Meanwhile, Canadian growers in British Columbia are not facing the same scrutiny. Canadian geoducks continue to be sold to China, Dewey said.
All U.S. growers can do now is wait while the days creep closer to the Chinese New Year at the end of January – typically an annual high-point for shellfish exports.
“We’ve been really appreciative of all the help that everyone has given on this issue from both the state and federal agencies, as well as our congressional delegation,” Dewey said. “People recognize the serious nature of this. They’re helping to get it resolved.”© Food Safety News