FDA urged to improve imported seafood oversight


Steven Hedlund

Published on
May 16, 2011

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is failing to adequately ensure the safety of imported seafood, according to a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office.

The FDA’s program is limited to enforcing the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) — the internationally recognized food-safety management system — by inspecting foreign exporters and domestic importers annually, said the GAO. But the inspectors generally do not visit the farms to investigate the use of antibiotics or other drugs or the laboratories that analyze seafood, according to the agency.

The GAO called FDA’s seafood-sampling program “limited” and “ineffective” because the agency does not test for drugs that some, including the European Union, have approved for use in aquaculture. As a result, seafood containing residues of drugs not approved for use in the United States may be entering the U.S. market, said the GAO.

The FDA missed its goal of collecting imported seafood samples by about 30 percent from fiscal 2006 to 2009, and the agency tested only about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood for drug residues in fiscal 2009, pointed out the GAO. The GAO also questioned the FDA’s use of resources regarding its reliance on seven of its 13 laboratories to test farmed seafood for drug residues.

The GAO report stems from a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the FDA and NOAA Fisheries in 2009 to enhance seafood oversight and inspection, in which the GAO was charged with assessing the FDA’s ability to ensure the safety of imported seafood against residues from unapproved drugs. The residues of some drugs can cause cancer and antibiotic resistance, said the GAO.

In a statement, Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, replied to the GAO report by saying the new food-safety law passed by Congress in January, called the Food Safety Modernization Act, will improve the agency’s ability monitor the safety of imported seafood. The law gives the FDA “new tools, new resources and new authority to prevent contaminated food” from entering the marketplace, said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at the time.

The GAO concluded by recommending that the FDA study the feasibility of adopting practices used by other entities to better ensure the safety of imported seafood, enhance its sampling program and develop a strategy for better leveraging resources and better collaborating with NOAA Fisheries.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) used the GAO report as an opportunity to promote a proposed rule transferring regulation of domestic and imported catfish from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rule, which is in the midst of a public-comment period, stems from the measure attached to the 2008 Farm Bill charging the USDA with inspecting catfish under the agency’s Federal Meat Inspection Act; inspections would be mandatory. Imported catfish and pangasius interests are opposed to the measure.

“The GAO has confirmed what many of us have maintained for some time — that the existing federal program to inspect imported seafood is so limited that it is insufficient and ineffective,” said Cochran in a press release. “The need for better oversight of imported seafood is among the reasons why Congress wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to decisively move forward with new federal safety standards for foreign catfish imports.”

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