Yuck: Our Seafood Is Loaded with Unspeakably Gross Pollutants

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

When you tuck into a delicious seafood dish, is it possible that the fish you are eating once ate human poop? Surprisingly, that might be the case. A look at the U.S. seafood supply reveals that some of our most popular seafood treats might come to us from unsanitary and disgusting operations in other countries. And the federal government does not necessarily stop it from making its way to your dinner plate, either.

These days, 91 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and half of that is farmed (the other half is wild-caught). Our top suppliers include China, Thailand, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Vietnam. And the production systems some of these countries use would make your stomach turn.

Michael Doyle, regents professor and director at the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, described tilapia production in China, saying, “The farmers there grow the fish in ponds that are maybe one to two acres in size. That's their livelihood. And they use excessive antibiotics.” China is a leading supplier of tilapia to the U.S.

“It's not just antibiotic residues on the seafood. It's also antibiotic-resistant microbes that come with the fish or the shrimp,” he continued. “A primary source of salmonella is the raw manure that is used to feed the shrimp and fish. Many of these farmers have poultry -- maybe chickens, maybe geese, maybe ducks. The fecal waste of these animals is fed directly into these ponds, which is the source of nutrients for these fish and shrimp… Poultry can harbor salmonella... that's shed in the feces. And many of these little farms have the family outhouse just feed directly into the ponds."

If that makes you less interested in ordering the tilapia, then you surely don’t want any Vietnamese “catfish” either. U.S. aquaculture produces channel catfish, but these days, American producers compete with a flood of cheap Vietnamese fish that are marketed as catfish. Dr. Carole Engle, chair and director of aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, says these Vietnamese catfish are “not only a different species, it's a different genus and a different family. We call it pangasius.”

To understand pangasius farming in Vietnam, one must first know a little bit about life in the Mekong Delta. Engle explains, “What's striking when you first get there is that there's more water than there is land in the Mekong Delta region. There are these large rivers coming through the Mekong Delta… These waters are everything. A lot of the transportation is on the water, and a lot of people live on the water, on houseboats. It's also a disposal system. People live on these rivers and their restrooms are right on these boats and they are discharging right on the rivers. And all the human waste, and all of the waste from cities… it's all going into the river and the river is the source of the water.”

That water is where the fish are raised. “A lot of the fish are raised in cages directly in rivers,” says Engle, but “more and more the pangasius are raised in what the Vietnamese call ponds.” But the ponds are nothing like U.S. aquaculture ponds that are closed systems using clean water. The Vietnamese ponds are regularly flushed with polluted river water. "Upstream a factory or a houseboat might have discharged something into it, and all that human waste is flowing through these ponds because they are flushing it through a few times a day," Engle explains.

Another concern with imported farm-raised seafood is the use of drugs and pesticides that are banned in the United States. A few that show up frequently include the drugs chloramphenicol and nitrofurans, and the fungicide malachite green. Each of these is banned in the United States for a good reason. Chloramphenicol can cause aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow does not produce enough new blood cells, in humans. Doctors use it as a drug of last resort to treat typhoid fever and meningitis. Nitrofurans and malachite green are potentially carcinogenic in humans.

What happens when a shipment of filthy or toxic seafood shows up in a U.S. port? Most likely, nothing. It enters the U.S. and unwitting Americans eat it. The Food and Drug Administration has an inspection program that is notoriously limited, underfunded and not at all transparent – particularly when compared to its counterparts in Japan, Canada and the EU.

In a study published last year, David Love, science director of the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture Project at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, found that Japan physically inspected 12 to 21 percent of its seafood imports between 2004 and 2009. The European Union goes even further, physically inspecting either 20 percent or 50 percent of all imported seafood shipments, depending on the risk of each individual product. But the U.S. inspects less than 2 percent of seafood imports.

Since 1997, the U.S. has relied on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system (which some deride as Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray). The system essentially turns control over to industry, requiring it to identify and control for points in the production chain when food might become contaminated. When done properly, it’s an excellent system. But it’s fair to say that setting your family’s outhouse to flow into your aquaculture pond does not constitute a good HACCP system.

Most of the time, the FDA relies on inspecting documentation to verify that adequate HACCP programs are in place and that they are being followed. (Because, you know, no one would ever falsify paperwork…) For just over 1 percent of imported seafood shipments, the FDA performs sensory examinations, checking for things like color, texture and odor. These exams can easily discover whether the seafood is filthy or rotting, but might not catch residues of veterinary drugs or microscopic pathogens.

Less than 1 percent of U.S. seafood import shipments actually go to a lab for testing. Last year, a GAO report titled “FDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Imported  Seafood and Better Leverage Limited Resources” chided the FDA for inadequate oversight and even failing to meet its own inspection goals. According to the report, “FDA”s sampling program is limited in scope, is not effectively implemented, and does not fully use the capabilities of FDA’s laboratories.”

For example, in 2009, the FDA tested only 0.1 percent of seafood imports for drug residues. When they do test, they only test for 16 drugs, whereas Canada tests for 40, some European countries test for 50, and Japan tests for 57. In recent years, the U.S. lagged behind other nations in starting to test for drugs. The EU began testing for chloramphenicol and nitrofuran in 2001, but the U.S. did not do so until 2002 and 2004, respectively. In 2003, the EU began testing for malachite green, but the U.S. waited until 2005 to do so.

Once the FDA rejects a shipment of seafood, “they don't destroy the product,” explains Engle. “So it can go out on the ship and come in on another port. And because there is such a small percentage being tested, then when they go to another port like that, it's equally unlikely to be caught. So that's what happens. They call it port swapping.” She concludes, “FDA is just simply not catching things, and the system is not set up to catch it.”

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.

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