It's no secret that cooking and boating are my favorite extracurricular pastimes. Add these crisp late summer evenings to the mix and it just doesn't get any better -- well, almost. I'm also a seafood lover, but based on some recent information about where most of it comes from, tomorrow's shrimp on the barby is going to require additional homework. And I'm not talking about the BP oil contamination in the Gulf.
Andrew Schneider, Senior Public Health Correspondent for AOL News, elucidates many of the issues that we as consumers need to exercise vigilance over in a column from yesterday. He quotes The National Marine Fisheries Service, saying "that 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported, mostly from China, Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, India, Mexico and Vietnam." And Marianne Cufone, director of the fish program at Food & Water Watch claims that "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 ... 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."
The FDA and USDA are simply not equipped to adequately protect consumers from contaminates in imported seafood. They've published volumes of guidelines for domestically based commercial fishing, such as this one from the FDA's Fish and Fisheries Products Hazards and Controls Guidance: "Large tuna (i.e., above 20 lbs.) that are not eviscerated before on-board chilling should be chilled to an internal temperature of 50°F (10°C) or less within 6 hours of death..." Great for fish caught by U.S. fisherman but irrelevant for imports. Schneider quotes Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, at a food safety conference in March saying "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 ... [from] millions of food products imported from 200 countries ... before they enter the country." Taylor also said the "FDA must have the tools to do better."
Better indeed. Schneider writes "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." He cites how with "[bee] 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."
Labeling is a huge part of the problem. Food & Water Watch's Seafood Buying Guide is a good place to start. But they also caution that while the USDA developed mandatory Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rules in 2005, "processed seafood is exempt leaving more than 50% of fish products in the U.S. without labels...[and] 90% of fish sellers, such as wholesale markets, don't have to label the [country of] origin."
So what's a consumer to do? I prefer to catch my own seafood, though as all fishermen know, that's not always successful. This is one area where bargain hunting is not a good idea. I suggest establishing a solid relationship with your fish purveyor and explain why you want them to record the country-of-origin from their suppliers for the seafood you like and definitely buy American, (and local!) whenever you can.