When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration placed five farmed-seafood species from China on import alert last June, many consumers believed Chinese seafood was unsafe to eat.

But that perception did not match reality, said Matt Fass, president of Maritime Products International in Newport News, Va., during the annual "SeaFood Business Summit: Improving the Safety of Farmed Seafood," held yesterday at the International Boston Seafood Show.

When the mainstream media ran wild with the story, Fass said MPI was inundated with quality-control questions for months after the FDA cracked down on Chinese shrimp and catfish, among other species, for the continued presence of banned veterinary drugs.

"[The import alert] fundamentally changed the flow of product and it affected our business relationships," said Fass, who believes protectionism is at the root of anti-China sentiment in the seafood industry.

"It certainly changed the type of discourse at the customer level, with retailers and restaurants," he added. "In fact, it changed things for the better, because these are the types of discussions we should have been having all along."

Bill More, VP and director of operations for the Aquaculture Certification Council in Kirkland, Wash., said large-scale producers that the ACC has certified are adhering to responsible safety practices.

"With a [growing] list of banned substances, it would appear that the level [of veterinary drug use] has increased," said More. "Yet the percentage [of violations] in containers we're seeing shows a tremendous decrease. This is due to the verification and testing procedures that buyers are imposing."

"The discussion of food safety has brought more attention to the areas we've emphasized in our production. I think it's a healthy debate, perhaps unfairly focused on China," said Norbert Sporns, CEO of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries in Seattle. "If the weak links are eliminated and if we come out of this stronger, it will be better for everyone."

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