US FDA issues import alert guidance on PFAS contaminants

“If I ran a seafood company, I would be really strongly monitoring [for PFAS] and adding regulatory measures to safety programs"
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland | Photo courtesy of Tada Images/Shutterstock
6 Min

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not currently detain imported seafood products contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can cause damage to human immune systems.

However, on 19 March, it released a document to guide the industry through a crackdown on PFAS that will likely lead to import alerts and detentions in the near future.

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, the FDA said in its updated Import Alert 99-48. These substances do not easily break down, and further, some types have been shown to accumulate in the environment and in human bodies, with potentially harmful impact, the FDA said.

“Exposure to some types of PFAS have been linked to serious health effects,” the agency said.

In 2022, the FDA conducted a targeted study of PFAS in 81 retail seafood samples. The survey, which followed on a previous study completed in 2021, included clam, cod, crab, pollock, salmon, shrimp, tuna, and tilapia products and helped the agency determine that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – a type of PFAS – found in samples of canned clams from China were “likely a health concern,” the agency said. Subsequently, Bumble Bee recalled some of its China-sourced canned clam products, quickly followed by Crown Prince.

The new FDA alert is intended as a “regulatory option for import samples that are adulterated, including import sampling resulting from ongoing assignments,” said Taryn Webb, the acting team lead of strategic communications with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).

“The decision to place a firm on the Import Alert will be case by case considering various factors," Webb said.

The FDA said it holds the right to place seafood companies on its red list if it finds detectable levels of PFAS in its products. Such a listing requires FDA to detain, without physical examination, shipments of the company's products. 

The alert further advises that in order to secure the release of an individual shipment subject to detention without physical examination, the owner, consignee, or another responsible party related to the shipment may ... 

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