WASHINGTON — The immediate fallout from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement that it would quarantine at U.S. ports all shrimp, catfish, eel, basa and dace that originated in China was predictable. Chinese officials told their state press that the effective ban was “unacceptable,” and seized two U.S. fruit shipments, noting that they would apply greater scrutiny to U.S. imports in the future, even as they also announced the seizure of several substandard seafood shipments prepared for export from the country.
European Union officials indicated that they might follow the FDA's lead, noting that they've also seen an increase this year in Chinese imports turning up with low but easily detectable levels of banned chemicals, such as DDT, and banned antibiotics, such as Malachite Green.
Already, groups such as Environmental Defense, an activist group currently operating the “Oceans Alive” campaign to promote ecologically friendly seafood choices, are calling for Country of Origin Labeling laws to be strengthened.
“There are three steps in getting fish farming right: information, innovation and vigilance,” said David Festa, director of the Oceans Program at Environmental Defense. “First, consumers need to know where their seafood comes from. The USDA has a chance right now to improve requirements for Country of Origin food labeling and recently reopened the existing rule for comment. Government and industry have great opportunities to step up. Second, innovation and technology can minimize the need for antibiotics and additives in the first place and ensure that the environmental impacts of fish farming are negligible. Finally, inspectors should improve testing protocols to keep consumers safer and provide a strong incentive for good aquaculture.”
Stung repeatedly this year by contamination scandals involving pet food, food ingredients, toothpaste, children's toys and now farmed fish, the Chinese legislature has also given the job of Health Minister to Chen Zhu, a European-trained scientist who's now the second non-Communist Party member to be appointed to such a high-ranking position since the 1970s.
Chen's appointment may signal a concession by China that the country's safety oversights and inspection processes will need a significant overhaul if the country is to remain a trusted global trading partner.
Meanwhile, these seafood quarantines — which will require all of the listed products to pass tests for banned chemical residues before they can be released for sale — may require supermarkets to reshuffle some of their suppliers, but the quarantines won't likely have an immediate impact on retail prices, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
“For consumers, I don't think they'll see a price increase, because the vast majority of catfish and shrimp is not coming here from China,” said Stacey Viera, spokeswoman for NFI. “For retailers, it's a different story. There's going to be a significant amount of discussion [between retailers and suppliers], because they need to make sure they have the product to sell.”
The NFI estimates that about 10% of catfish consumed in the U.S. comes from China, and only 7% of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported from China.
Tilapia — an increasingly popular fish that wasn't included in the quarantine list — is a different story. About 70% of the tilapia consumed in the U.S. is sourced from China, according to a report in The New York Times last week. As a result, a similar quarantine on that species could lead to severe supply chain disruptions.
What is not yet clear is how these continuing news reports, along with the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling already in place for the seafood category, might impact shopper perception and trust regarding other seafood raised in China.
NFI has been working to reassure consumers that the seafood they buy at their supermarkets or consume in restaurants is safe. And, although it was widely reported during this spring's pet food contamination scare that the FDA was able to inspect only about 2% of containers imported from China in 2006, Viera noted that the quarantine will do its job by helping to simplify that workload.
“They're going to have to focus their resources on the companies and countries that have been repeat offenders,” she said. “You look for problems where problems are, not where they aren't.”
North American aquaculture may stand to benefit as retailers seek out supplies from sources closer to home, but Viera said that NFI discourages its members and retailers from inferring that domestic products are safer than foreign-sourced products.
“I think you've got to be careful who you throw stones at,” Viera said. “The potential for misinterpretation among consumers is great,” she added, noting that disparaging the safety of a source runs the risk of making shoppers think that its unsafe to consume entire species of seafood. ”The FDA is doing its job here, and there is no public health threat.”