Senior Public Health Correspondent
AOL News (Aug. 26) -- Consumers are caught in the middle as food safety experts ponder the potential risks from shrimp, crab and fish from the Gulf of Mexico while mostly ignoring the frightening evidence of years of foreign seafood arriving at U.S. ports tainted with drugs, chemicals and bacteria.
"Consumers are rightfully worried about problems with eggs right now," said Marianne Cufone, director of the fish program at Food & Water Watch. "They should be concerned about seafood, too."
Let's just look at shrimp as an example. They can be bathed in spicy cocktail sauce, baked in garlic butter New Orleans style, mixed with pasta or salads or eaten cold. However they're prepared, more shrimp are consumed in the U.S. than any other seafood. That works out to at least four pounds per person annually.
Thousands of tests done by state and federal agencies and universities have shown the gulf shrimp and other seafood being sold today and served from coast to coast to coast are free of any harmful levels of oil and dispersants.
Michelle Locke / AP
This photo shows shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico for sale alongside other seafood at the Hapuku Fish Shop in Oakland, Calif., on Aug. 17. Store manager Shawn Mattiuz says he gets a lot of questions about the safety of domestic seafood these days but is selling about the same amount as he did before the oil spill.Also See: Your Guide to Safe and Responsible Seafood Purchases
Nevertheless, a multitude of environmental activists fervently insists the impact on food from BP's gift that kept on giving for more than three months lies just beneath the surface -- and is dangerous.
But compare those concerns to the worries about imported shrimp. The National Marine Fisheries Service says that 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported, mostly from China, Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, India, Mexico and Vietnam.
"About 80 percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported, but less than 2 percent of those imports are actually inspected for contaminants like filth, antibiotics, chemicals and pathogens," Food & Water Watch's Cufone said.
The prevalence of harmful contaminants in some imported seafood is documented repeatedly in the small number of inspections that the Food and Drug Administration makes.
Many of the health hazards come from how the shrimp are raised overseas.
Properly run shrimp farms yield up to 445 pounds per acre. Food & Water Watch, which has long studied aquaculture, has documented that many foreign shrimp farm operators densely pack their ponds to produce as much as 89,000 pounds of shrimp per acre.
"The water is quickly polluted with waste, which can infect the shrimp with disease and parasites. In response, many such operations in Asia and South or Central America use large quantities of antibiotics, disinfectants and pesticides that would be illegal for use in U.S. shrimp farms," the group's researchers wrote in a recent report.
This is not a "maybe" situation, Cufone says.
"With imported shrimp, we see pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, and filth, which is the official name [for] things like mouse and rat droppings, hair, insects, and the assorted chemicals, antibiotic and disinfectants they're doused with to fight disease from the filthy conditions in which they're raised," she told AOL News.
Congress Does Little to Help
Less than 2 percent of foreign seafood is even eyeballed, let alone analyzed in a laboratory. The FDA says that's because it lacks personnel and laboratory capability.
"If we can find the problem, we can keep it out of the country, out of our food chain, but finding it depends on the fairly thin net of FDA inspectors working the ports to catch the problems before they enter the country," Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, said at a food safety conference in March.
Taylor has an extensive and innovative history in food safety programs. He was brought in earlier this year to rebuild FDA's safety program.
He said there are millions of food products imported from 200 countries and "FDA must have the tools to do better."
Taylor and about everyone else involved with food safety expected that Congress would soon pass a new, sweeping Food Safety Act that would update laws that have been of minimal value since they were written in the 1930s.
That hasn't happened.
During the last administration, Democrats repeatedly raged over the failure of Republicans to pass what they called a "vital and life-saving Food Safety Bill," legislation that would give the FDA and other food safety agencies the laws and resources to protect America's food supply.
The House approved the bill, but it has been languishing in the Senate for about a year; and many public health advocates, as well as other senators, say they're puzzled why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is avoiding all action, even discussion of the legislation.
Reid's office did not respond to questions.
What Does Get Stopped Is Frightening
The FDA admits it's checking only the smallest fraction of imported seafood, but what it does intercept is alarming and should make shoppers worry about what's still getting to their fish markets.
Just Wednesday, the agency issued an "import alert," which is like a hazard warning to its port inspectors to detain shipments from specific companies until tests conducted by the importer indicate that the food meets FDA standards.
The alert involved shipments from eight countries because of the known or suspected presence of unapproved or misused drugs in farm-raised shrimp, frog legs, tilapia, the catfish-like basa and other seafood. China led the alert with 15 separate companies out of the 40 cited for previous violations.
But often, investigators can't be sure where the fish actually originated.
As they do with "honey-laundering" scams, import brokers often ship seafood from countries like China to other countries to avoid high import tariffs and intensified scrutiny for dangerous adulterants. For example, in one case, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says millions of dollars of imported shrimp from Chinese producers were shipped through Indonesia to avoid paying steep anti-dumping duties.
So far this year, the FDA has issued 34 significant alerts involving hundreds of seafood suppliers throughout the world.
Chilean langostinos, used in many restaurants in chowders, bisques and salad in place of the far more costly lobster, which was found tainted with Staphylococcus Aureus and E. coli.
Frozen tuna packed by a firm in Taiwan, which had rat droppings and decomposition from lack of refrigeration.
Catfish from Bangladesh, which had salmonella.
Farm-raised basa, shrimp, dace [a species of small fish], eel and catfish from China, which contained unsafe drugs and additives.
Dried shark fin from Hong Kong and Ecuador, Argentina and Australia, which had insect, rodent or other animal filth.
Frozen shrimp from India, which was contaminated with salmonella, cockroach droppings and decomposition.
U.S fish processors are not without fault.
The FDA has gone after domestic processing and packaging companies for histamine or scombroid fish poisoning, caused by exposure to improper freezing or a failure of refrigeration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these poisonings caused 37 percent of all seafood-related foodborne illnesses.
On Tuesday, New York state food safety investigators ordered the recall of NY Fish Brand smoked herring because the viscera or guts of the fish were not removed before the herring were brined and smoked. This could lead to botulism, whose spores often concentrated in the guts.
Sneaky Tricks and Cons
It doesn't take long for the FDA and Customs agents to learn how far devious or sneaky businesses that put profits before safety will go to try to manipulate the few safeguards that are in play.
For example, they cite the case of a Florida seafood import firm that had repeatedly violated the food quality standards. All shipments consigned to the company were routinely seized for more careful examination.
In the late '90s, the company was accused of fraud and conspiracy for selling decomposed shrimp, which it washed in a concoction of chlorine, trisodium phosphate, lemon juice and copper sulfate to disguise the odor.
In February, FDA investigators determined that three shipments of imported frozen shrimp consigned to this company were shipped in through the Los Angeles Customs district. Attached to the refrigerated containers were shipping papers that said the shrimp came from an Indian company with a clean reputation; not the real shipper whose cargo was subject to seizure because of previous bad practices.
So, the agents in California permitted the load to be transshipped to the Florida company, but along the way federal investigators discovered that the paperwork was bogus and agents in Orlando seized the shrimp.
The FDA found cockroach droppings and human hair in two loads and salmonella and decomposition in the third. The loads were seized until the company could supply proof that the shrimp were safe.
Obtaining the clean bill of health raised more issues as FDA found the company had been "shopping" for private labs that would and did produce an analysis declaring the shrimp was salmonella-free and safe to sell and consume. The FDA didn't buy it and the shrimp were kept off the market.
These examples should make it clear why many food safety experts say buy domestic seafood if possible, and know, trust and talk to your fishmonger.