U.S. Halts Some Chinese Fish and Seafood

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has put a hold on five different types of farmed fish and seafood. Many of these imports contain traces of potentially harmful drugs used to prevent disease in the fish. The drugs are used to treat fungus infections and a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The list keeps getting longer. On top of the contaminated pet food, toothpaste and more, the Food and Drug Administration has acted against Chinese products again. This time the FDA put a hold on five different types of farmed fish and seafood. Many of these imports contain traces of potentially harmful drugs used to prevent disease in fish.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX: The products are shrimp, catfish, eel, basa - a catfish-like species - and dace, related to carp. Dr. David Acheson of the FDA announced the decision.

Dr. DAVID ACHESON (Assistant Commissioner of Food Protection, Food and Drug Administration): This means that FDA is not allowing the import of these Chinese-farmed seafood products until the importers can prove that the seafood is free from harmful contaminants.

KNOX: The harmful contaminants include three drugs used to treat fungus infections and a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. The anti-fungals cause cancer in laboratory animals. Fluoroquinolones in food can be toxic to pregnant women and children, and scientists worry that they can lead to the evolution of germs that become resistant to antibiotic treatment.

But the FDA's Acheson stresses it takes long-term exposure to cause serious health problems.

Dr. ACHESON: I think we're talking not days, weeks, not even months, but years. And it's certainly possible that at these low levels you'd never reach that point. But it's clearly a challenge that we wouldn't want to take.

KNOX: In fact, Americans have already had long-term exposure to contaminated Chinese fish. The FDA has been tracking the problem for seven years. Recently, tests found that 15 percent of Chinese fish imports had traces of the banned drugs. Still, Margaret Glavin of the FDA says there's no need for consumers to avoid Chinese fish already in U.S. markets.

Ms. MARGARET GLAVIN (Associate Commissioner of Regulatory Affairs, Food and Drug Administration): We're not asking for this product to be withdrawn from the market or for people to take it out of their freezers and return it or throw it away. They should not have concerns about these products.

KNOX: There's some confusion over whether consumers could avoid Chinese fish already in this country. Glavin says there's no requirement that fish and seafood have country of origin labels. But a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that, in fact, there is a such legal requirement.

The long-term safety of Chinese fish is uncertain. William Hubbard is a former FDA deputy commissioner who says many Chinese fish are raised in polluted waters and overcrowded conditions.

Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARD (Former Deputy Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration): Many of the exports from China come from essentially a cottage industry. And that presents a challenge for the Chinese government, and I suspect they will not be able to do a completely thorough job.

KNOX: But now they'll have to try if China wants access to the American market for these popular fish.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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