Are tainted fish slipping into the United States?

The opposition to the USDA catfish inspection program has turned up the heat, producing at least a half dozen videos condemning it and filling e-mail boxes with tales of waste and the potential for trade retaliation if it is implemented.

Their latest justification for eliminating USDA inspection is that people have been eating imported fish for years, and no one has gotten sick. The real issues are twofold – does a large percentage of imported fish contain harmful substances or chemicals at levels that would prevent their entry into this country, and does the United States have the capability to adequately detect these tainted fish?

It appears the answer is yes, and no, respectively.

According to a September Food Safety News article, researchers in North Carolina found that a large number of fish imported from Asian countries contained “unnatural levels” of formaldehyde, a toxic chemical commonly used as a disinfectant or embalming agent. When researchers tested U.S. fish of the same species, they found no harmful chemicals.

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Catfish Farmers of America recently blasted the FDA, which is currently responsible for testing fish, for the failure.

“The FDA is failing miserably when it comes to protecting consumers from the dangers of imported seafood and catfish,” said Ben Pentecost, Mississippi catfish farmer and president of CFA.

“If contaminated fish is being found in North Carolina, imagine what could be found on supermarket shelves all across the United States,” said Pentecost. “Due to the FDA’s weak inspection program, 98 percent of imported seafood is being sold directly to American families with no inspection, and less than 1 percent is actually being tested for contaminants. The U.S. government needs to be reminded that it has a duty to maintain the safety of our nation’s food supply.”

In 2008, Congress authorized the creation of a catfish inspection program within USDA. The inspection program has yet to be implemented, which Pentecost says, is putting consumers at risk.

“We cannot continue to allow the FDA to expose our friends and families to products that originate from countries who do not abide by the same strict safety standards as America's farmers do,” said Pentecost.

According to the report, around 25 percent of the fish purchased from supermarkets in Raleigh contained formaldehyde.

The researchers stopped short of saying formaldehyde was intentionally added to the fish. The Food Safety News article suggested it might have been added to prevent spoilage.

If one of every four imported fish is better suited for dissection in a high school biology class than human consumption, trade implications can move to the back burner. We need USDA inspection.

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