FDA Looking to Ease Import Rule on China SeafoodJul 21, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
It seems, in the midst of ongoing recalls of tainted food and products originating from China, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may relax some of its restrictions on seafood imported from that country. The restrictions were imposed last year on Chinese seafood processors following inspections of some firms in that country, a senior FDA official says.
The FDA restricted imports of five types of Chinese-raised fish in June 2007, saying many contained chemicals the U.S. doesn't allow for health reasons, including long-term cancer risks. Since, China's government and seafood producers have increased both testing and safety controls. The percentage of seafood shipments testing positive for the drugs has dropped from about 25% to less than 6%, says Don Kraemer, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Food Safety.
Also, FDA inspectors in China audited 13 seafood processors, including some of China's largest, this month, checking for things such as good food-safety controls and the quality of inspections conducted by the Chinese government. Within weeks, the FDA expects to determine whether or not to free any of the plants from the import restrictions. Those restrictions affected Chinese firms shipping farm-raised shrimp; catfish; eel; basa, which is similar to catfish; and dace, a type of carp. To be able to enter into the United States, the FDA required that the fish test free of certain antibiotics and anti-fungals that Chinese farmers use to battle fish diseases. Only one Chinese firm has been exempted from the testing because it proved to the FDA that it shipped clean fish. The 13 recently audited plants were selected by the Chinese government for FDA review.
If the FDA accepts the quality of Chinese plant inspections, then it will rely more heavily on Chinese inspections when granting future exemptions, Kraemer says. The seafood restrictions affected 500 Chinese companies, far more than the FDA can inspect, Kraemer added. Exempting more companies would speed shipments and cut import costs from China. China has long been known as a major supplier of shrimp and catfish to the United States.
Importers say China's government has clamped down on shoddy producers. For instance, last winter, Beaver Street Fisheries in Florida reported that one-third of its shrimp imports coming in from China tested positive for the drugs. "I haven't had a positive test in months," says Beaver's import buyer Carlos Sanchez. China's regulators have become very stringent, agrees Norbert Sporns, CEO of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries in Seattle, a producer of tilapia in China. Before, he says they "turned a blind eye" to some lax producers.
Food safety issues are of particular concern in China's vast countryside where oversight of the many small factories has contributed to a string of food poisoning incidents. Earlier this year, four children died after eating a dried-noodle snack and at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in 2004 after being fed fake milk powder. Late last year, China's food and drug safety agency revoked the license of a company responsible for making tainted leukemia drugs that caused leg pains and partial paralysis in dozens of patients.