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Yuck: Our Seafood Is Loaded with Unspeakably Gross Pollutants

Some of our most popular seafood treats come to us from filthy operations in other countries.

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The U.S. catfish industry was so fed up with the FDA’s lack of oversight that it lobbied to have catfish inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead. The USDA requires equivalency, says Engle, meaning that imported catfish (including pangasius) are held to the same standards as domestically raised catfish. “Why should we have different standards for our US growers and... an imported product?” Engle asks.

But even though catfish oversight was transferred to the USDA in the 2008 farm bill, the change was never implemented. Engle calls it a "political battle” between states with many seafood importers and those with a domestic catfish industry. Vietnam joined in the fight too, threatening to boycott U.S. beef. “Why would they be worried about it unless they realized they couldn't meet the US safety standards right now?"  Engle points out. “The battle was not about safety for US consumers or even safety for Vietnamese consumers. It's really a shame.”

Engle worries most about the veterinary drug residues and the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have evolved alongside them in foreign aquaculture operations. "It's a long-term kind of a thing -- there aren't bodies for people to look at like an immediate acute kind of disease like salmonella and so people don't worry so much about it,” she says.

Even worse, because other importing nations have stricter regulations than the U.S., “the best quality fish goes to Europe and Japan and Canada, and we get lower quality products here." Engle is outraged by this. “I find it appalling as a U.S. consumer. I just don't think we should have lower standards than other countries in the world for our food safety,” she says. “I still believe this is the greatest nation on this planet, and yet we don't act like it sometimes.”

With the FDA asleep at the wheel, what can U.S. consumers do to avoid eating imported farmed fish produced in unsafe conditions? If you are buying unprocessed seafood at a grocery store, the product will be labeled with its country of origin.

Veterinary drug violations are disproportionately from China, Vietnam and Indonesia, and they are disproportionately found in shrimp. (Shrimp is also the cause of a large percent of shipments rejected for filth and salmonella.) Farmed salmon (particularly from Chile) is another product that has been caught with banned veterinary drug residues.

However, 70 percent of seafood consumption takes place in restaurants, which are exempt from country-of-origin labeling. That means that most of the time, U.S. consumers have no idea where their seafood comes from – unless they ask their waiter and receive an answer. Processed seafood is also exempt from country of origin labeling, so you might want to skip on the pre-cooked cocktail shrimp, too.

To truly ensure you are eating safe and sustainable seafood, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which provides updated guides to buying and eating seafood. Of course, the real solution is improving federal oversight of imported seafood, and that does not seem forthcoming.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

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