Chinese Seafood on List of Questionable Products

Fish are lined up for display at a local market in Hong Kong. i i

Fish are lined up for display at a local market in Hong Kong. Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images
Fish are lined up for display at a local market in Hong Kong.

Fish are lined up for display at a local market in Hong Kong.

Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

The list of questionable Chinese products is growing, as the Food and Drug Administration put a hold on five types of farmed fish and seafood that contain traces of antibiotics that are potentially harmful to humans.

Federal officials said Thursday that repeated tests on shrimp, catfish, eel, basa and dace imported from China revealed the presence of drugs not approved in the United States for use in farmed seafood.

The "hold" means that the 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," said the FDA's David Acheson.

But FDA officials said there was no immediate health risk, and they stopped short of ordering an outright ban.

Federal officials have also issued recent warnings about lead paint in toy trains, defective tires and toothpaste made with diethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient commonly found in antifreeze. All of the products were imported from China.

Chinese officials on Thursday insisted that the safety of its products is "guaranteed." They made the rare, direct comment in an effort to quell international fears over tainted and defective exports.

FDA officials said the level of the drugs in the seafood was low. The FDA is not asking stores or consumers to throw away any of the suspect seafood.

"In order to get cancer in lab animals you have to feed fairly high levels of the drug over a long term," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection. "We're talking not days, weeks, not even months but years. At these levels you might not reach that level, but we don't want to take a chance."

He added, "We don't want to be alarmist here. ... It's a low likelihood."

The FDA said tests on some Chinese imported fish between October and May repeatedly found traces of the antibiotics nitrofuran and fluoroquinolone, as well as the antifungals malachite green and gentian violet. Of particular concern are the fluoroquinolones, a family of widely used human antibiotics that the FDA forbids in seafood — in part to prevent bacteria from developing resistance to these important drugs. The best known example is ciprofloxacin, sold as Cipro, which made headlines as a treatment during the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Acheson stressed it takes long-term exposure to cause serious health problems.

"I think we're talking not days, weeks or even months, but years," Acheson said. "And it's certainly possible that at these low levels you'd never reach that point, but it's clearly a chance that we wouldn't want to take."

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.

But Margaret Glavin of the FDA says there is no need for consumers to avoid Chinese fish already in U.S. markets.

"We're not asking for this product to be taken off the market or for people to take it out of their freezers. They should not have concerns about these products," Glavin said.

There is some confusion over whether it would even be possible for consumers to avoid Chinese fish already in the U.S. Glavin said there is no requirement that fish and seafood have country of origin labels. But a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said there is such a legal requirement.

The long-term safety of Chinese fish is uncertain, according to William Hubbard of the lobbying group Coalition for a Stronger FDA. He said many Chinese fish are raised in polluted waters and over-crowded conditions.

"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," said Hubbard, who is also a former FDA deputy commissioner.

The concerns raised in the U.S. also reached the ears of Chinese consumers.

Some shoppers at an international supermarket in China admitted they are worried about food safety. They would rather pay higher prices for safer products.

"It's expensive here, but that doesn't matter as long as it's clean. We're buying security," said Fang Qingshou.

From NPR and The Associated Press reports



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