U.S. consumers continue to play piscatorial roulette when purchasing imported fish, which now constitutes a large percentage of offerings by many supermarkets — usually sold at prices lower than for domestic fish.
The latest incident made public by the Indianola, Miss.-based Catfish Farmers of America, cites testing by an NBC- affiliated consumer reporter and a North Carolina laboratory that found “unnaturally high amounts of formaldehyde in four of 15 samples of imported frozen white fish species purchased in national food retail store branches in Greensboro, N.C.”
The report by NBC-TV Charlotte noted that formaldehyde-laced Vietnamese swai (a catfish-like species also known as pangasius, basa and tra) was found in three area stores. Formaldehyde-tainted Chinese tilapia was also found in three stores.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was alerted and conducted blind testing of fish found in supermarkets nationwide and found similar results. The FDA, which is responsible for imported seafood safety in the U.S., does not routinely test for formaldehyde, so there's no limit on how much of the toxic chemical can be added to fish, NBC Charlotte reported.
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"Some fish have small amounts of formaldehyde naturally," explained consumer reporter Benjamin Briscoe. But, the lab — North Carolina-based Appealing Products, which developed food poison detection kits for the Department of Defense — says natural levels are so low they would not show up on the test. "It turns out, manufacturers in other countries sometimes add formaldehyde to make the fish last longer."
The recent testing, first reported in April of this year, followed findings in September 2013 of unnatural formaldehyde amounts in frozen seafood imports from Vietnam and China on sale at mainstream food outlets in Raleigh, N.C.
Catfish Farmers of America says Vietnam is the largest supplier of the catfish-like species pangasius (basa, tra, and swai) to the U.S., while China is the largest supplier of tilapia.
Always check origin of fish"American consumers deserve quality inspection of the products they purchase," says the Catfish Farmers of America. âCatfish Institute photo
The organization, which has long voiced concerns about the safety and quality of imported fish from these two countries, says “consumers should always check the country of origin of seafood they purchase. U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish is a reliably wholesome, healthy American-grown and processed alternative to potentially dangerous imported seafood.”
To better protect consumers, CFA says, America's catfish farmers support all federal and state efforts to improve inspections of foreign imports and enhance country of origin labeling of catfish and catfish-like species.
In June, as Congress was involved in a rancorous debate over the Pacific Rim free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether to give the president “fast track” authority, seafood safety experts cautioned that the free-trade agreement could reduce the safety of food imports.
"Consumers deserve to know how the Trans-Pacific Partnership could affect the safety of the food they feed their families," said Patrick Woodall, research director and senior policy advocate of the non-profit, non-partisan Food & Water Watch. The seafood safety organization commended U.S. House members Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, Louise Slaughter, D-NY, and Chellie Pingree, D-ME, for demanding public release of import safety provisions of TPP that could override U.S. law.
"The TPP will limit our ability to stem the tide of harmful products, particularly seafood from Vietnam and Malaysia,” Rep. DeLauro said.
Citing seafood from Vietnam and Malaysia, Patrick Woodall said, "We know there is a problem with these imports," and that fish farmers in the TPP partner nations of Vietnam and Malaysia often use veterinary medicines and fungicides that are illegal in the United States to combat disease in overcrowded fish ponds and river cages.
Food and Water Watch said the Food and Drug Administration only inspects about 3 percent of Vietnamese and Malaysian seafood imports, but rejects 16 percent of the shipments it does examine. “The FDA needs to strengthen its seafood import safety program and the government should release food safety provisions of the TPP, Woodall said.
Vietnam is the largest provider of catfish-like fish to the United States.
FDA refusal actions up 24 percent
In June this year, the Food and Drug Administration reported that the number of FDA Import Refusal Actions against tilapia shipments increased by 24 percent last year, from 62 to 82.
Import Refusal actions stem from findings of residues of drugs illegal for use in the United States, food tainted with pathogens such as salmonella, or from potentially dangerous chemicals.Catfish harvest in Mississippi: U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish is a reliably wholesome, healthy American-grown and processed alternative to potentially dangerous imported seafood, says the Catfish Farmers of America organization.
By contrast, total imports of tilapia increased by less than 1 percent, from 457,853,000 to 461,481,000 kilos during 2014.
The overall trend continued during the first quarter of 2015, with import refusals advancing by 35.7 percent to 38 refusals, compared to 28 refusals during the first quarter of 2014.
China is the largest supplier of tilapia to the United States, and the FDA only inspects about 2 percent of seafood imports. Only one-half of 1 percent are laboratory tested.
Also in June, Catfish Farmers of America met with members of the Alabama congressional delegation to encourage transferring catfish inspection authority from the Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"American consumers deserve quality inspection of the products they purchase," said Bari Cain, CFA president. "Our lawmakers have an obligation to maintain the safety of our nation's food source. USDA inspection will prevent consumers from being exposed to products that originate from countries who do not abide by the same strict safety standards as we do.
"CFA supports USDA catfish inspections because we know that the Food and Drug Administration provides insufficient safeguards for the American consumer. By FDA's own admission, they inspect a shockingly low percentage of the seafood coming into the United States."
FDA oversight said ineffectiveCatfish harvest on the Kevin Shirk farm in Mississippi.
Mississippi’s U.S. senators, Republicans Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, and catfish industry leaders have long maintained the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight program to ensure the safety of imported seafood from residues of unapproved drugs is not effective. According to USDA and other federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 1 percent of all imported seafood products.
During the debate over legislation giving President Obama trade promotion authority, the senators found themselves once again having to defend the program that Cochran had included in the 2008 farm bill.
An amendment offered to the trade promotion authority bill would have terminated the USDA catfish inspected program, which has long been sought by the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry.
“It is past the time to set the record straight about U.S. Department of Agriculture catfish inspection,” said Cochran. “It has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with the health and safety of American consumers, who are exposed to dangerous chemicals and unapproved drugs in the imported fish they eat.”
Cochran and Wicker sent a letter to acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank urging her to enforce an antidumping order against frozen fillets from Vietnam. The correspondence, signed by eight senators, is critical of the Commerce Department’s handling of the Vietnamese frozen fillet antidumping case and the resulting “surge in the volume of low-priced imports.”
“The precipitous decline of the American catfish industry can be directly linked to Commerce Department actions that have allowed the U.S. market to be flooded with imported alternatives. Mississippi catfish producers and the people they employ deserve fair treatment from this administration. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case right now,” Cochran said.
“The catfish industry is an important part of Mississippi’s economy, and the Commerce Department should use all available tools to prevent unfair imports,” said Wicker. “American producers deserve to compete on a level playing field.”
Vietnamese imports are 75 percent of U.S. marketAmerica's catfish farmers support all federal and state efforts to improve inspections of foreign imports and enhance country of origin labeling of catfish and catfish-like species, says the Catfish Farmers of America organization.
The letter to Blank points out that Vietnamese imports have tripled since 2008 and now account for more than 75 percent of the U.S. market. The Senators point to USDA statistics that indicate the market share maintained by U.S. catfish producers has dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent since an antidumping case was filed.
They also cited other evidence, including:
- In 2007, U.S. catfish farming covered almost 164,000 water acres; by January 2013, acreage totaled only 83,020 water acres.
- In 2007, U.S. catfish processors sold about 104 million pounds of frozen fillets; by 2012 that number had dwindled to just over 67 million pounds, a more than 35 percent decline.
“This decline correlates directly with the change in the Commerce Department’s approach in the antidumping case and the resulting flood of low-priced Vietnamese imports. Unfortunately, these imports are impacting the most vulnerable members of our society. Many catfish processors, which can be the largest employers in their community, operate in regions suffering from poverty and unemployment rates well above the national average,” the senators wrote.
“U.S. trade laws enjoy the strong support of Congress because they serve the invaluable role of ensuring a level playing field for U.S. producers and workers who must compete in markets that benefit from the most commercially open borders in the world. Without the strong enforcement of these trade laws, American companies would face a significant disadvantage when competing with unfairly subsidized or dumped imports,” the letter states. “We urge you to ensure that the Commerce Department vigorously enforces the antidumping order against frozen fish fillets from Vietnam.”
The letter was organized by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and was also signed by Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, and Louisiana Sen. Mark Vitter.