Your Health

Something's Fishy With FDA's Oversight Of Imported Seafood

Fish trucks like this one, touting the health benefits of seafood, are ubiquitous in New York. i i

hide captionFish trucks like this one, touting the health benefits of seafood, are ubiquitous in New York.

Phil Hollenback/Flickr
Fish trucks like this one, touting the health benefits of seafood, are ubiquitous in New York.

Fish trucks like this one, touting the health benefits of seafood, are ubiquitous in New York.

Phil Hollenback/Flickr

Americans have received the health message and are eating more fish.

And a lot of the seafood we're chowing down on these days comes from foreign waters.

More than 80 percent of seafood eaten in the country is imported. And about half of the foreign seafood is farmed. Those facts raise the question: Is the seafood, especially the farmed stuff, safe to eat?

A report just released by the Government Accountability Office report finds the Food and Drug Administration could do a better job make sure it is.

The GAO focused on how the agency does in assessing imported fish for traces of drugs used in fish farming. Fish raised in pens are susceptible to infections, so they often receive antibiotics or antifungal medicines.

Some of the drugs used in fish can be toxic to humans. The use of others can encourage bacterial resistance, diminishing the medicines' effectiveness as treatments for human illness.

So some drugs, such as the antibiotic chloramphenicol, aren't allowed in U.S. food. For other drugs, there are limits on the residues that are permissible.

The GAO found FDA's testing for drug residues to be "limited in scope," covering 16 unapproved drugs. Some other importing countries test for as many as 57 drugs.

And the amount of seafood subjected to FDA tests is quite small. Only 0.1 percent of all seafood imported into the U.S. in fiscal year 2009 was tested for drug residues, the GAO report said.

By way of example, the report points to some approaches used by the European Union, such as certification of food-producing countries' safety systems.

In a response to the GAO, the Department of Health and Human Services said the FDA has increased the number of inspections it performs of foreign seafood producers. It also assesses how strict other countries are in policing seafood farming.

Yes, there's room for improvement. And HHS says new FDA powers made possible by the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, such as enhanced product tracing, can help.

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