China to U.S.: Your Seafood Is Toxic, and We Refuse to Buy It

Are faulty measurements to blame in the Chinese ban that threatens the livelihood of the Pacific Northwest's fisheries?

Chinese Government's Seafood Ban on U.S. Bivalves Over Safety Concerns

Geoduck clam (Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

We hate to put it unkindly, but China is not exactly known for its stellar food safety record.

Yet, on Dec. 5 Chinese officials stunned the U.S. shellfish industry by banning imports of all wild and farmed bivalves from the coastline that stretches from Alaska to Northern California, after Chinese officials said they found high levels of inorganic arsenic and the toxin that produces paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP).

American officials haven't detected either of those trade deal breakers, but the Chinese say two shipments of wild geoducks—a large burrowing clam known for its long siphon (or neck)—were tested in late November and exceeded health standards. 

Just why the Chinese government decided to broaden the seafood ban beyond geoducks to halt imports of all bivalves—including other clam species and oysters—from the Pacific Northwest is a mystery.

The ban could become a costly problem for states like Washington, which harvests between 5.5 million and 7 million pounds of geoduck annually—with nearly 90 percent of it exported to the Chinese market.

Washington state's Department of Health launched an investigation and tracked down the tainted geoduck shipment's origin to a specific growing area, according to a letter it sent to Chinese officials on Dec. 13. The department's Office of Shellfish and Water Protection says its own test records show PSP levels below accepted limits, and it conducted a facility inspection to make sure it's in good condition. 

The United States doesn't test for inorganic arsenic in geoducks because it's never shown up in American shellfish in levels that cause concern, according to a spokesperson from NOAA Fisheries. The second shipment of wild geoducks tested by the Chinese is believed to have originated in Alaska.

NOAA and the FDA have reached out to China to get more information, but there are concerns that the confusion over number conversions may be playing a role in the ban.

Could it simply be a bad case of lost-in-translation?

“The communication from China is vague. There’s worry about confusion over the numbers. The units [of measurement] don’t make sense,” says Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farm, the state’s largest shellfish supplier. “The whole issue of inorganic versus organic arsenic was troubling in the memo. It’s challenging when [China] uses different units, because when they’re converted to our units, they don’t make sense. We’re hoping something got missed in the translation here.”

For shellfish producers like Shelton, Wash.–based Taylor Shellfish, the ban is painful.

Prior to the ban, the Taylor exported 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of geoduck to China a month, and up to 120,000 oysters. All of that has stopped on Dec. 5, when NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program stopped issuing export certificates for shellfish from the area to China.

“It’s definitely a big deal. We have a lot of export markets, and China is a big one,” says Dewey, encouraging officials to take a formal and thoughtful approach to their response. “The best possible outcome from my point of view is that China sees that we’ve identified the two areas and that we limit closure to those areas but reopen the rest of the coast.”

Diplomacy can be slow, and no one is sure how long the ban will continue.

“It’s hard to put a timeline on it because we’re waiting for more detailed information from the Chinese,” says NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Fionna Matheson. “We are working with others to identify exactly where these batches of product came from, and if it did contain high levels of toxin that causes shellfish poisoning, why the U.S. testing didn’t catch it.”

Jerry Borchert, marine biotoxin coordinator for the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection in the Washington State Department of Health, is confident his state's shellfish is safe to eat.

"Our shellfish is safe. We have one of the best marine biotoxin programs in the country. Our testing program is rigorous," he says.

The shipment of geoducks identified by the Chinese came from a tract that is monitored weekly, and records show that PSP numbers were below any action level, says Borchert. One of the geoduck shipments fingered by China was for elevated PSP levels, the other for arsenic.

"It's not clear which state those came from, but on the PSP front, we do not have elevated levels like China has reported in their findings."

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