Monday, May 05, 2008

Thanks, Can I Have Some More?

This is a pretty good article from the P-D:

'The world is sending us their junk'
By Bill Lambrecht
POST-DISPATCH WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
05/04/2008

WASHINGTON — In March, inspectors checking Chinese seafood arriving at U.S. ports made some unsettling discoveries: fish infected with salmonella in Baltimore and Seattle, and shrimp with banned veterinary drugs in Florida.


Meanwhile, a shipment intercepted in Los Angeles on March 19 and labeled "channel catfish" wasn't catfish at all, though records don't say what it was.

"A lot of those products coming in from overseas, you have no clue as to what is in them," said Paul Hitchens, an aquaculture specialist in Southern Illinois, where cut-rate Chinese catfish are threatening the livelihood of fish farmers.

China rapidly has become the leading exporter of seafood to the United States, flooding supermarkets and restaurants. And while China agreed late last year to improve the safety of food exports, the inspectors' March findings were not isolated cases.


According to Food and Drug Administration records examined by the Post-Dispatch, inspectors turned away nearly 400 shipments of tainted seafood in a year's time from China.

The records told a troubling tale, but even more troubling was what they didn't tell. Only a tiny fraction of imports are inspected at all, and even fewer are tested.

It's a challenge the United States is just starting to confront: With an increasingly globalized food supply, the government — using an antiquated inspection system — is unprepared to keep Americans safe from the dangers arriving at our ports.

"When you look at less than 1 percent of shipments, and sample and test maybe one-fifth of those, there's no way you can protect the American food supply," said Michael Taylor, a former FDA official who is professor of health policy now at George Washington University.

Seafood is considered one of the most risky imports, and those from China steadily have risen. When the FDA does turn away shipments, usually it is because the food contains veterinary drugs, among them nitrofurans, a family of antibiotics banned by the FDA because tests showed they cause cancer in animals.

More than 100 of the shipments were rejected for being filthy, decomposed or otherwise unfit for consumption, according to the records.

In December, after disclosures about Chinese imports of poisonous pet food and lead-filled toys, the FDA and the Chinese government agreed on new procedures aimed at preventing tainted and dangerous food and drugs from reaching American shores. But skeptics question whether the new, voluntary arrangement has sufficient teeth.

Meanwhile, Chinese seafood is a prime target of legislation in Congress to revamp decades-old inspection mechanisms in hopes of protecting Americans in a globalized food system.

FDA officials are requesting new authority, including the ability to license private companies to assist with inspections. But the Bush administration has signaled opposition to key provisions that would require regular inspections in foreign lands and limit ports where food can arrive to docks with FDA labs.

Former FDA officials argue that change is urgently needed.

William Hubbard, formerly the FDA's associate commissioner, noted in an interview that the FDA's inspection system was designed early last century when the big challenge was finding bugs or mold in arriving barrels of commodities such as flour or molasses. Now, the U.S. gets millions of shipments of foreign food each year from around the world.

Hubbard, who retired in 2005, recalled inspectors reporting particularly disturbing methods of Chinese aquaculture: raising chickens in cages kept above fish-ponds — a potential source of the salmonella in seafood, he said.

"Increasingly, the world is moving in a better direction in food safety and we're falling behind," Hubbard said. "As our system becomes more antiquated and more ineffective, the world is sending us their junk."

SOARING IMPORTS

Imports of seafood have surged dramatically in recent years and account for nearly 80 percent of the seafood Americans consume. Last year, that translated to 5.4 billion pounds of imported seafood out of estimated 6.75 billion pounds consumed.

Supermarket frozen food sections routinely are filled with imported fish filets, shrimp and crab meat — which must contain country-of-origin labels on packaging.

No such disclosure is required for fish served in restaurants, so people generally can't know with certainty the country of origin for the fish or shrimp they order.

Records at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show how surging Chinese imports are meeting the demand of seafood-loving Americans. For instance, between 2000 and 2007, imports of farm-raised tilapia from China — a staple in restaurants — soared nine-fold, to more than 240 million pounds.

Imports of catfish have been especially vexing to U.S. seafood interests, given the whiskered bottom-feeder's popularity in parts of America.

In four years, imports of Chinese catfish — or fish so described — increased from 1.6 million pounds to more than 22 million pounds last year, posing stiff and sometimes crippling competition for U.S. catfish farmers.

Jeff McCord, spokesman for the Catfish Institute, said that many of the more than 1,000 catfish-growers he represents saw their revenue plummet.

"It has led to many family farmers throwing in the towel and the loss of hundreds of jobs of farm workers and in fish-processing plants," he said.

In Southern Illinois, fish-farmers blame the 2003 collapse of a catfish processing plant in Pinckneyville on a flood of Chinese imports that they say nearly cut in half the price they could get.

Even now, efforts in Illinois to build a successful industry with farm-raised prawns and bass are stunted by imports, said Hitchens, the aquaculture specialist at Southern Illinois University.

"We know we can't compete with them, so we're trying other angles," said Hitchens, who arranges sales of live, farm-raised seafood to markets in St. Louis, Chicago and as far away as Toronto.

Hitchens sounded a common refrain in the American aquaculture industry: "Here in Illinois, we're very conscious of trying to get out a fresh product that is natural and without antibiotics."

Echoed Brenda Lyons, whose family grows prawns in Sandoval, Ill.: "We're not going to compete with China. We're not going to grow a bunch of junk. We're selling live, fresh fish. And they can't supply that from over there."

'NO OVERNIGHT FIX'

It's usually impossible to track down the source of food-borne illnesses that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, occur 76 million times annually in the United States, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

But fish — particularly uncooked or improperly cooked seafood — is a common source of problems. And the rapidly growing imports from China pose a new threat that needs attention, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food safety expert at the Washington-based nonprofit group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In China and elsewhere in the developing world, "the ability to produce food and ship it globally far surpasses their ability to ensure it's safe," she said.

Experts agree that change is needed to protect Americans from dangerous imports. The question now is how much change Congress will demand and how much change the Bush administration and the FDA will be willing to accept.

Last year, U.S. and Chinese officials began discussing changes amid disturbing revelations about dangerous products from poisoned pet food to shoddy tires.

In a "Memorandum of Agreement" reached by the FDA and their Chinese counterparts in December, seafood was accorded the status of "high-risk" because of ongoing problems. Now, says the FDA, both sides are pursuing initiatives that the FDA hopes will lead to an FDA office in China and an electronic certification system for imports arriving in the United States.

'CONFIDENCE BUILDING'

Dr. Murray Lumpkin, an FDA official who helped negotiate the arrangement, said that the United States and China are in a "confidence-building" mode right now with both sides showing "commitment." Lumpkin, who traveled to China a month ago, noted that the Chinese have not yet said yes to an FDA office in Beijing.

"This is going to take some time," said Lumpkin, the FDA's deputy commissioner for international and special programs. "But I think that both governments realize it is not helpful for either country to have tainted fish come in to the U.S. It doesn't help in terms of the safety we demand and it doesn't help the China brand."

Meanwhile, skeptics question the potential of an arrangement that lacks assurance that FDA inspectors will get access to production facilities and ponds where fish are grown.

The University of Georgia's Michael Doyle is a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel that has studied food safety. He said it's too early to gauge the success of efforts to improve seafood safety.

"It's not going to be an overnight fix," he said. "The FDA needs to reinvent itself."


Or, we could just stop importing shit until our trade partners meet or exceed our environmental and labor standards. But that wouldn't do transnational corporations or the Chicom government any favors; and, as the wealthy and tenured Brad DeLong says, it would be very naughty of us to complain to our Chinese future rulers, lest they remember the slight and make us pay for it later, after we have passed our imperial burden onto them. Meanwhile, Dr. DeLong eats organic stuff from Whole Foods, while poor saps like you eat poison from Wal-Mart & Kroger. Cheers!

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