FairWarining Reports

Imported Fish with Banned Chemicals Reaching U.S. Consumers

(John de Rosier/Courtesy of the Albany Times Union)

Tons of imported fish laced with chemicals banned from the U.S. food supply, including carcinogens, are routinely showing up in this country and, state officials say, winding up on American dinner plates.

Within the last two months, three American fish importers pleaded guilty in Mobile, Ala., to federal felony charges of mislabeling fish and seafood. Their illegal haul included more than 120,000 pounds of imported fish, brought in to Mobile and Seattle, that tested positive for the suspected human carcinogen malachite green and for another antibiotic that U.S. authorities also prohibit for use on fish that people consume.

What’s more, FairWarning found that states including Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have detected evidence of prohibited substances in recent years while screening imported fish.

“I can tell you right off the bat that 40 percent of the imported fish we test is positive for banned drugs that are not safe for human health,” said Brett Hall, deputy commissioner for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

The evidence of tainted imported fish reaching U.S. shores and seeping into the marketplace fleshes out a critical Government Accountability Office audit released in April. The year-long investigation found that the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system is so haphazard in inspecting imported fish and seafood— screening less than 1 percent of what comes in — that fish tainted with potentially harmful drugs “may be entering U.S. commerce.” The report noted that more than 80 percent of the fish Americans eat is imported from other countries.

FairWarning found that the potential problem cited by the GAO is already a reality. In the last year alone, tests by Tennessee authorities detected the banned family of antibiotics known as flouroquinolones in imported basa fish. Georgia found evidence of a flouroquinolone, in imported catfish, though less than officials detected in previous years. Likewise, Arkansas discovered the banned chemical crystal violet, a carcinogen, also in catfish.

Two states that tested imported fish until running out of funds to continue their inspections over the last couple of years, Florida and Alabama, also had been detecting such banned chemicals, which typically are used to fight parasites and disease that threaten farmed fish.

For instance, in 2007 Florida found that 19 percent of the imported catfish it tested were positive for fluoroquinolones. And from 2002 to 2009, Alabama records show, 44 percent of basa fish it tested from Asia tested positive for fluoroquinolone, prompting the state to issue nine “suspensions from sale or movement orders” to take fish off the market.

However, only a handful of states inspect imported fish – mainly ones trying to protect local fishing industries from what they regard as unfair foreign competition. The others rely on the FDA to protect consumers, despite the documented flaws in the FDA’s inspections.

As a result, there is ample evidence that imported fish with banned drug residues is getting into U.S. supermarkets and restaurants, even though there is no reliable estimate of the quantity. “I think consumers have and are consuming it,” said Ted McNulty, director of the Aquaculture Division of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

For its part, the FDA says that the presence of banned drugs in imported fish “is a risk we’re actively trying to manage” and the agency defends the job it is doing in keeping tainted fish imports out of the U.S.

“Consumers can be confident about the safety of their seafood,” FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said via email.

Karas added that the FDA “conducts targeted risk-based testing of products,” inspects foreign processing facilities and consults with foreign authorities. And the FDA’s ability to police foreign imports will be strengthened, he said, by the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in January.

To prevent tainted fish from entering the country, the FDA uses an import alert system that allows officials to detain fish products without inspection if they come from companies or countries on the “red alert” list – a lengthy and shifting list of entities that have been caught bringing in products that pose health hazards. But some state officials have said those on the “red alert” list play cat-and-mouse games with U.S. authorities, shipping vast quantities of tainted fish and banking on the fact that most of what they send will elude detection.

“When you’re not checking but one percent of what’s coming into the country…if a load is rejected they can just go out and put it on another ship, bring it in and they have a 99 percent chance of not getting caught,” McNulty said.

The Florida-based Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade group for domestic producers, has raised questions about whether the FDA red alert list works to keep tainted fish out of the U.S. marketplace.

It recently complained to the FDA about an Indian firm, Sagar Grandhi Exports, wondering why it would be allowed to ship more than a million pounds of shrimp while it was on the agency’s red list for previously exporting shrimp laced with banned nitrofuran residue.

Shipping records from Panjiva, a firm that researches global trade, corroborate that Sagar Grandhi did, in fact, export while it was red listed more than a million pounds of shrimp to the U.S. through Los Angeles, Long Beach, Newark, New York, Seattle and Savannah. Sagar Grandhi officials could not be reached for comment.

In a letter of reply to the alliance, the acting deputy director of the FDA’s Office of Food Safety, William Jones, did not disclose what happened in the case of the Sagar Grandhi shipment. He noted, however, that India has implemented a mandatory testing program for shrimp exports. Jones also said that red list companies seeking FDA clearance for their shipments commonly hire private labs to test their seafood.

None of that persuades Nathaniel Rickard, an attorney for the alliance. From the language of the FDA letter, he said, it suggests that the Indian firm hired a private lab to test its shrimp, “but who knows if they did?”

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18 comments to “Imported Fish with Banned Chemicals Reaching U.S. Consumers”

  1. CaptMike

    I am a charter boat captain from mid-Michigan fishing Lake Michigan Salmon and trout. What I don’t understand is why we are not allowed to sell our catch to local restaurants or markets where we know our fish is a lot safer than the stuff they serve. Case in point- we ( the charter boat association) sent 2 lbs of fish each (8 lbs total) of various species (2 trout 2 salmon) to be tested for heavy metals pcbs dioxin etc, and turned in 2 lbs of “Salmon from a local supermarket”. They were sent to Michigan State Agricultural testing lab and the results were astonishing. The lk Mi fish came back with less than 4% of the stuff found in supermarket salmon. But we cant sell it or I loose my license. However- i guess it’s important to state how we clean/fillet our fish vs the commercial supermarket. The Michigan published a document “Michigan Fish-Unsafe to eat” about 10 years ago. The State of Michigan did “Whole Fish Analysis”. Everything-skin, scales, organs, eyes, bones, basically they dropped a fish into a blender to get their sample data. I don’t know about you- I don’t eat the organs, scales, or bones etc. There is a lot of misleading information on some of the heavy metals tests (which is stored in the fat and skin). I just wonder how much of the stuff the FDA publishes uses the the same methodology.
    What I found shocking is all farmed salmon is pale gray or yellow because of lack of krill and other crustaceans they can’t eat in captivity. They order color additives to put in food to get the lovely salmon color. Check out SalmoFan.
    I am a HS Biology teacher with degrees in Biology and Freshwater ecology. I run trips to fish during the summer out of Ludington Michigan.
    An interesting book to read is called “4 Fish”. It looks at the conservation of various wild stocks of fish and what should be done to help them. The book highlights Cod, Salmon, Mediteranian seabass(bassa), and Sea Bass (from S America).

  2. Monroe

    One part of the problem boils down to MONEY. Where is our deeply-in-debt government supposed to get the money to inspect all this fish?

    Another part of the problem is the extent of the authority that the FDA has when it does nail an offending shipment. As cited in the article, the shipment is “rejected,” goes back out to sea, and comes in again on another boat. The FDA should have and USE the authority to DESTROY violative shipments. The violator has no kick coming because (s)he knew d***ed well that the fish was tainted to begin with.

  3. Peter

    Fish don’t feel. Watch out for the e. coli in the spinach an alfalfa. (they biofilm well on those and the fields are sometimes grown downstream of the CAFOs.)

    I’ve actually used those chemicals in lab. Really old school selection agents and cheaper than dirt. Interesting that Malachite green (which BTW makes a really pretty green solution) is also used to isolate certain very toxic soil fungi. Crystal violet (whenever you can get the stuff it actually to go into solution) is used, with methylene blue on some bandages in third world countries where other antibiotics are too expensive. I think some work is being done against MRSAs. The side effect is blue skin. No real issues if you use them outside your body. Probably best not to eat them though. :-)

    They must be using really low levels of the colored compounds otherwise the fish would be green or purple.

  4. oaktownjen

    it makes the case for being vegetarian. no mercury in the tuna I don’t eat, no mad cow in the beef I don’t eat, no hormones in the chicken i don’t eat, no guilt about the huge amount of water needed to create meat-based protein that I don’t eat.

  5. Bev Hill - Good Food 4 All

    I wrote about this same thing last year. Bottom line: I don’t trust any imported food, especially from China. Consumers need to do research and not just go through the store on autopilot. Yes, our food system IS broken but many foreign countries are far worse off than we are. More frightening is that the U.S. gov’t has sold many banned chemicals to these nations who are still using them on food.

    The FDA, USDA, EPA and all other gov’t agencies are fraught with corruption, inefficient and outdated practices. Although their original intent was a good one, sadly this has dissolved into a morass of overburdensome regulations — especially for SMALL FARMERS! Bills are introduced into congress on the sly, information kept from the people just so that industry can have its way.

    Big Ag, the Bio-Tech industry and the Chemical industry all have their hooks into these agencies. Monsanto wants to submit its OWN test results on GMOs for the gov’t to OK. Huh? That’s the fox watching the hen house!!!

    I URGE E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E reading articles such as this to GET INVOLVED in SPEAKING OUT for your FOOD SUPPLY and SMALL FARMERS! The old saying: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is very true.

    Post your lawmaker’s names and phone numbers above your computer where you can call when you get an alert. They are REQUIRED to take constituant’s information. E-Mail your representatives with concerns. Keep pounding away at them!


  6. PACS

    Boycotting anything from China has been going on in my home for over 3 years now. The thing I find most scary is that it is getting harder and harder to find things produced in the US..while our economy tanks we send more and more of our goods production to the Chinese. Remember the tainted dog food? The flip flops that gave people a strange skin rotting disorder? Why don’t people wake up and see the ‘big picture’. Once we are enholden to the Chinese for all our food and goods how much effort would it take on their part to take out a large part of the US population by introducing poisons into our foods and goods? We are setting ourselves up for further economic depression and making it easy for other countries to target wiping out our populations in ways people here aren’t stopping to think about! And for those of you shopping at Walmart-THE MAJORITY of your food/goods are coming from China–Sam Walton is rolling over in his grave I’m sure! Recently I’ve noticed some things are being listed in a way to try to ‘hide’ where it came from. I’m seeing more labels with Distributed by rather than made by (they don’t want you to know where it came from). Also seeing Made in P.R.C. (People’s Republic of China – NOT Puerto Rico!!) and Made in U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates). Apparently markting feels most Americans are too stupid to either pay much attention or figure out where there food is truly coming from.

  7. Janice Stanger

    Just don’t eat fish. It’s really that simple. Eat a wide variety of whole plant foods – veggies, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. You’ll get plenty of protein, more than you need, and you won’t be poisoning yourself, devastating the environment, and subjecting fish (which are feeling creatures) to the hideous pain of being pulled out of their watery home and slaughtered.

  8. Chiroprincess

    Yes! I agree in boycotting Chinese food products….until we can be sure the food or other commodities we’re buying are really what they say they are and without poisons!
    How long will we keep importing from impostors and pay the price for products that are killing us?
    And by the way… Hormel is another brand that tortures their pigs and the piglets too…

  9. hovaard

    simple – boycott china. everything they make, sell, export, believe, etc. it’s not the chinese, it’s their government.

  10. John

    Do yourself a favor and read “Bottomfeeder” by Taras Grescoe.

  11. oceans111

    And this need for more inspections and oversight of food safety while the budget for the FDA is being cut. Because according to many representatives , there is too much government involvement in the lives of its citizens. If not them, then who? Many do not care, if they have no healthy food to eat… let them eat cake!

  12. E chase

    Great comments!

  13. cascadian

    Farm-raised fish, in addition to being pumped full of drugs to keep them “healthy,” are also fed a diet that is not at all what fish are supposed to eat. It’s (surprise!) corn-based and filled with all sorts of crap. The end result is fish that do not have the same nutritional attributes as wild-caught fish. Their meat is fundamentally different, much the same way as feedlot beef is different than grass-fed beef. Farmed fish aren’t fish.

  14. MAL

    I like fish and buy the wild caught – assuming I will be getting some pollutants for sure but not as damaging as what is in farm raised. It is disgusting- “wild Alaskian salmon” product of china – I would not trust their packaging or additives. Farm raised fish are all given antibiotics and other chemicals to compensate their conditions at the fish farms.

    We should demand better regulations in the animal agriculture profit world. Smithfield pork #1 producer of pork tortures female pigs with gestation crates that they never leave till they are used up and slaughtered too. I’ve watched videos of them trying desperately to move a foot a little – they can’t move at all. The pig is a highly intelligent animal, smarter than a horse and said to have the intelligence of a human 3 year old child. Haven’t eaten a pig for years and have no intention of doing so for the rest of my life. People eat way too much animal meat. You don’t have to be a vegetarian (they have an 80% less risk of heart attack and stroke) but you certainly could eat more plant based protein sources -. beans, lentils etc.& less meat. The greenhouse gases and pollution from animal agriculture is more than all the transport vehicles, land air water. The pollution to water creates dead zones and sickens our waters.

  15. faye

    I know personally of one person who died eventually of eating contaminated oysters while in China. The other person got very sick from eating a live fish from a chinese restaurant, also in China. The first man suffered for 2 whole years with a bag attached to his intestines, and the 2nd man is alive and look haggard and gaunt. It has been 6 years ago, and he still does not look good.
    Yes, the sea, ocean, lakes are contaminated, so is the land and water, etc., but we have to eat nonetheless. Try to support local small farmers who raise their animals without all the antibiotics and hormones, buy cheese & other dairy products that are not made with hormone induced milk, avoid deep fried foods cooked in carcinogenated reheated oils. Go back to tradition, the old ways is best if you have the time, if not, do the best you can.
    And how much radiation can one take? Microwaved food, cellphones, wireless electronic gadgets in and around and surround the house?
    Do something to improve or at least not damage the environment, reduce clutter, possessions that are not necessary, refuse to use plastic bags, instead of recycle whenever possible. A cloth bag can be used many times. Dry your clothes in the sun in the summer. Hang up your clothes to air dry in the winter and use so much less time to dry your big sheets, etc…Love your environment, love yourself…. the world is beautiful..

  16. Suzanne Stevens

    At least we are talking about it. This topic is so often ignored.

  17. Roberta Margolis

    Since I eat fish frequently, sometimes imported, are there more details available about where the fish comes from? Is there a country or area where there is a greater concentration of fish with unwanted chemicals?

    It makes the case again for buying locally.

  18. DawnieRotten

    I find this article hilarious!! Since ALL of the seafood caught off OUR shores and in OUR lakes are ALL toxic too!! Wake the fk up!! Is the seafood safe to eat in the Gulf after the oil “spill”?? NO!! And seafood was NOT safe BEFORE the “spill” either!

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