Report: U.S. should step up seafood import testing
The United States Food and Drug Administration should increase seafood import drug residue testing and other efforts to prevent contaminated shipments from entering the country, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The FDA sampled only 0.1 percent of all seafood imports for the presence of banned antibiotics in fiscal year 2015, according to the GAO, which acts as the official auditor of the U.S. government. Its report, “Imported Seafood Safety: FDA and USDA Could Strengthen Efforts to Prevent Unsafe Drug Residues,” pointed out multiple problems with the way the United States currently handles inspections of imported seafood.
Additionally,as the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service takes over greater responsibility for overseeing inspections of imported catfish along with the FDA, the agencies generally have not coordinated on drug residue testing methods, resulting, in some cases, in differences in drug residue levels used to determine if seafood is unsafe, the report said.
“Without this coordination, the agencies do not have reasonable assurance that they are consistently protecting consumers from unsafe drug residues,” the GAO report said.
That’s alarming, according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade group representing U.S. Gulf Coast shrimpers, because of FDA’s 550 shrimp samples for drug testing in fiscal year 2015, 67 (12.2 percent) were found to have the presence of unsafe drug residues.
“The GAO notes that during fiscal year 2015, the United States imported 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp. The violation rate, if applied to all shrimp imports during that year, implies that roughly 158 million pounds of contaminated shrimp entered the United States during that fiscal year,” the group said in a statement.
Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications for the National Fisheries Institute, told SeafoodSource the report points out obvious weaknesses in the U.S. inspection regime.
“It is not a surprise that the GAO report discusses FSIS needing to do a better job of inspecting catfish as USDA has no background in seafood inspection whatsoever,” Gibbons said, referencing the fact that recent legislation placed the organization in charge of inspections.
The GAO report suggests that FDA require foreign governments to do more testing of U.S.-bound products for unapproved antibiotics and that the agency should pursue more formal inspection arrangements with countries exporting seafood to the US.
However, in its response to the report, FDA said that it has not "received any requests to establish this type of arrangement,” and that "[f]actors outside the agency's control. . . could limit robust implementation of this recommendation.”
“FDA will continue to use its existing tools to ensure the safety of seafood imported into the United States and, in the event an arrangement is signed, may consider appropriate modifications,” the agency said.
John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, said the GAO is asking an important question.
“If other countries say they are willing to do more to prevent their exporters from shipping shrimp contaminated with banned antibiotics to the U.S. market, why aren't we taking them up on their offers?" Williams said. "While we greatly appreciate the FDA's increased scrutiny of shrimp imported into the U.S. market, the continued detection of banned antibiotics in these shipments demonstrates that there is more to be done. Refusing to enter into bilateral agreements, [which] foreign suppliers already are willing to commit to with other trading partners as a condition of access to their markets, makes no sense and, worse, firmly establishes the United States as the dumping ground for contaminated shrimp produced around the world."
While NFI agrees that international cooperation is important, it said any changes made by FDA should be “risk-based.”
“If a country has a spike in rejections or a questionable history on a product, then focus resources there, as FDA already successfully does, in addition to requiring more testing by the foreign food safety agency,” Gibbons said. “But don’t simply say across the board that more testing should be required.”