WASHINGTON – As federal regulators scrambled last month to contain a pet food contamination outbreak, officials in some Southern states had a different concern: Noticing that catfish imports from China had skyrocketed, they began testing the imported fish.
What they found surprised them: two banned antibiotics.
The discovery pointed to a deep flaw in the nation’s food safety system, as the Chinese catfish had already entered the U.S. legally and were on their way to grocery stores and restaurants. “We continue to find it in the food shipments coming into Alabama,” said Ron Sparks, Alabama’s agriculture commissioner.
“And if it’s coming into Alabama, it’s coming in everywhere else.”
The discovery enabled Alabama and Mississippi to put “stop sale” orders on the catfish, tying up more than 700,000 pounds of fish in Alabama alone. But without these last-minute tests, the fish would have been eaten by any number of consumers, despite the presence of the banned antibiotics.
No country highlights the gaps in America’s food import system – with just 0.9 percent of shipments inspected upon arrival in the U.S. in fiscal year 2006 – as much as China, a rapidly industrializing, mass-exporting country whose food safety controls lag those of Western nations.
In April alone, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration turned back 257 Chinese import shipments, far more than from any other country, FDA records show. At least 137 of them involved food rejected for reasons like “filthy,” “salmonella,” or because it contained banned ingredients. A good portion of the rejected Chinese shipments each month includes fish and seafood, such as catfish, shrimp, mahi-mahi, tilapia, eel and yellowfin tuna.
Other Chinese imports that did not get past inspectors included herbal teas, bean curd, candy, dried apples, dried peaches and peanut milk. Nonfood items included everything from catheters to lip gloss.
While U.S. inspectors pay more attention to high-risk countries like China, critics say the added scrutiny falls far short of what is needed.
The FDA, stung by recent contamination cases involving spinach, lettuce and peanut butter, and now the pet food scandal involving wheat flour from China, is rushing to adapt. Earlier this month the agency established a new post, assistant commissioner for food protection, and gave the job to David Acheson, who was already an FDA food safety official.
Acheson has launched a review of food safety practices and is the first to admit they need a dramatic shift.
“The agency is heavily focused on what you might call reactive mode,” Acheson said. “Where and when we see a problem, we react to it. The inspections that we do are risk-based, target areas that we think are higher risk. The big area we need to do more on is the prevention phase.”
While that sounds logical, it’s a tall order for the FDA, where inspectors are swamped by a growing number of imports and a nearly unfathomable list of foods for which they are responsible.
Each year, 76 million people suffer food-borne illnesses in the United States. About 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, according to a February report by the Government Accountability Office that found the federal food safety program a “high-risk” area.
In recent months, China’s rejection rate for imports has regularly been the highest among countries that send food to the United States.
In 2002, Chinese companies exported 103,104 import lines, or different shipments of imported food products, to the United States. By 2006, that had jumped to 234,963.
Given the holes in the system, few regulators were surprised that the tainted pet food ingredient – wheat flour laced with melamine, a compound used to make plastics – and the illegal catfish had passed inspection.
“You’ve got to take the imports back beyond the ports,” Acheson said. “You cannot do this if you are going to simply look at material that’s arriving on the docks. It’s impossible. The FDA inspects 1 percent of the imports. You can multiply that by a factor of 10 and that’s still 90 percent going through that we don’t inspect.”
In March and April, for example, inspectors stopped more than a dozen shipments of Chinese catfish from entering the United States, according to FDA records. It was during that same period that Alabama and Mississippi found catfish containing antibiotics banned in food by the FDA.
“I think certainly the FDA needs more resources,” Alabama’s Sparks said. “I think they need help to inform Congress. I think there needs to be a commitment to the food supply in this country. The food supply is vulnerable.”