The Food and Drug Administration recently came under fire for failing to catch processing errors at food plants which later proved to have sold contaminated products, like eggs and turkey, to the public. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before the same happens with fish, specifically imported fish from overseas factory farms. The U.S. imports up to 90 percent of all the fish it consumes, and yet the FDA inspects only 2.7 percent of it, despite wide-spread reports of unsanitary farming conditions and a rampant abuse of antibiotics.
According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, shrimp from Vietnam seems especially plagued with health issues steming from protocol at fish farms. At Ngoc Sinh Seafoods Trading & Processing Export Enterprise, workers sort fish in a hot factory populated with swarms of flies and littered with trash.
Once sorted, shrimp are stuffed into what are characterized as dirty barrels packed with ice made from Vietnamese tap water. According to the country’s own Health Ministry, Vietnam’s tap water is laden with bacteria making it unsafe to drink. The agency has warned residents that the water needs to be boiled for sterilization before it’s consumed. But according to Bloomberg, Ngoc Sinh throws caution to the wind and skips over that step, simply freezing the water into cubes and packing it in with shrimp for shipping to the U.S.
Wired reports the U.S. consumes over one billion pounds of shrimp each year and Vietnam is our fifth largest importer of it. Suspicions about its safety have been met with mounting evidence from elsewhere in the world. Japan has found that the Vietnamese shrimp it imports has been testing positive for dangerous levels of antibiotic residue, forcing it to return many shipments of shrimp to their point of origin. (In case you’re wondering, the U.S. almost never practices actual testing of this kind, but more on that later.)
Vietnam isn’t the only exporting country with a fish safety issue. In 2007, CNN reports that China set off an FDA alert blocking imports of several fish- including shrimp- that were found to have been contaminated by drugs and unsafe food additives.
Today China remains a concern as its exported tilapia, grown in factory farms close to Hong Kong, are fed a diet that includes manure from pigs and geese. According to MotherJones, the manure "contains salmonella" and makes the fish more susceptible to disease. But that hasn't stopped many of the fish farms in the area from adopting manure feed as a replacement for regular feed because it's a cheaper option that allows them to keep production up.
The health risks, not to mention the environmental impact of these practices, are obviously significant. So where is the FDA? Bloomberg reports that though the agency is fully aware of the problem, it’s not doing a whole lot to stop it. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, reported to the news agency that the FDA’s inspection practices surrounding imported fish essentially consist of quick visual scans to see if it looks obviously rotten. What about the laboratory tests that Japan conducts? We almost never do those. In fact, the environmental watch group reports the FDA conducts drug residue testing on just 0.1 percent of our country’s imported seafood.
That being said, there are still protective measures consumers can take. In her regular column for TakePart, food expert Jane Lear recommends sticking with domestic, frozen fish. And in order to support the health of the ocean, look for fish with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label. Food carrying the MSC label supports sustainable fishing practices.
Are you up for frozen fish or have fish practices driven you away from the food altogether? Let us know in the Comments.
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• Do We Need to Invent a Tag For “Hybrid” Fish?
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer. In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a web editor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com