By Deborah Zabarenko
At the Seafood Expo North America earlier this year, visitors flocked to the free samples like tropical fish in a tank, nibbling on shrimp and crab, smoked, roasted and baked salmon and piglet-sized loins of ahi tuna. But of the 1,100 businesses on display at the Boston show, the vast majority of fish hailed from China and Vietnam, Chile, India, Indonesia, Scotland, Portugal and many other nations.
Americans eat nearly 5 billion pounds of seafood a year, about 15.8 pounds of fish and shellfish per person — about half of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends — yet an estimated 90 percent of that comes from foreign waters. Last year, seafood imports hit nearly $19 billion, up from $10.5 billion in 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Fisheries Service. In comparison, Americans eat about $2 billion of fish harvested in the U.S., and send nearly $6 billion overseas.
“That’s not going to change,” said Peter Quinter, a Miami-based attorney for seafood importers. “We’re consuming more seafood than ever before, per person, and we don’t have the (domestic) supply yet.”
With all this foreign seafood ending up on American plates, the percentage that gets inspected by the Food and Drug Administration, one of the main bodies overseeing fish imports, is relatively low: between 1 and 2 percent. The top imported species of seafood — shrimp and prawns (counted as one category) and tuna — are also the ones with the most shipments refused by the United States, according to an analysis of FDA inspection data by the Investigative News Network.
The data showed that from 2002 through 2012, 4,171 shipments of shrimp, 3,053 shipments of tuna, 1,509 shipments of “other” fish and 1,483 shipments of crab were turned away, the data analysis found.
Indonesia had the most rejected shipments of shrimp, tuna and crab; Vietnam had the second-most for tuna and crab while India came in number two for rejected shrimp. Some of the main reasons given for rejecting seafood: nutritional mislabeling, filth and decomposition, pesticide residues, salmonella and E. Coli.
Yet the rejection rates were also quite low, amounting to just 0.33 percent of all seafood inspected in 2012, which leads to two possibilities: either the inspectors are missing tainted fish or the complex web of import requirements is working.
Drilling down in the process, importers must clear a number of hurdles to get seafood into the United States. The 2 percent FDA inspection figure, though widely accepted, is also widely misunderstood, government officials and industry officials say. In fact, they contend, as much as 40 percent of imported seafood may be inspected by various government agencies.
Aside from the FDA, U.S. Customs Service officials make sure the appropriate tariffs are paid. NOAA also has a program of voluntary inspection that looks at about 25 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States, which is over 2 billion pounds, said Steven Wilson, assistant director for seafood inspection at NOAA Fisheries. Importers pay a fee ranging from $100 to $225 an hour to have their shipments inspected by NOAA, which gets no taxpayer money for this service.
In addition, seafood importers must have a plan that tracks their work from its origins abroad through transport and storage until it gets to markets in the United States.
If violations are found — flawed hygiene, mislabeling, adulteration — FDA officials can issue an import alert that requires inspection of the importer’s next five shipments of seafood before the alert is lifted. These plans are known as HACCP (pronounced “hassup”) plans, short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.
But there have been concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 reported that seafood was the most common source of imported foodborne disease outbreaks in a five-year period from 2005-2010, accounting for 17 outbreaks.
At the same time, the FDA data show that the percentage of inspected seafood rejected at the border has hovered at about one-third of 1 percent, according to the INN data analysis.
As for the inspection process, looking at every shipment of seafood would be impractical, so the U.S. government targets companies, countries and products that carry a higher risk, using a complicated computer algorithm to determine where those risks lie, according to Wilson of NOAA Fisheries.
Some seafood buyers also demand NOAA inspection, so inspectors can certify that products come from an “approved establishment” or meet the U.S. Grade A standard, Wilson said. The Grade A rating means that in addition to being safe, clean and wholesome, imported seafood has good flavor, odor and texture, making it more appealing to consumers, a sort of beauty pageant score for aquatic products.
Wilson took issue with those who question the 2 percent FDA inspection rate. “If we talk about percentages … anything less than 100 percent and consumers get concerned,” he said. “The problem with looking at 100 percent is you could destroy product to the point where you’re not having any product.”
Captain Domenic J. Veneziano, director of FDA’s Division of Import Operations and Policy, noted in a panel discussion at the Boston expo that seafood accounts for a disproportionate amount of all U.S. government import alerts, advisories that can keep food and other products out of the country.
In an email, Veneziano said FDA uses a risk-based targeting application called PREDICT that generates a risk ranking to help investigators determine which shipments should be examined and/or sampled.
“This assessment is dependent on many factors, such as the inherent risk of the product, compliance status of the manufacturer, filers that are submitting the entry, etc.,” Veneziano wrote in the email. “The PREDICT application has demonstrated that it is effective in identifying shipments that have a high risk of being violative.”
Another contentious figure is the estimate that 90 percent of all the seafood Americans eat is imported. Wilson estimates the percentage is somewhat lower than that, possibly 75 percent to 80 percent, depending on how “import” is defined.
While the United States imports billions of dollars worth of seafood from China, for example, some of this fish actually originates in Alaska, which sends raw products overseas for processing. “It’s hard to say that it was China product when in fact it probably was Alaskan product to begin with,” Wilson said. “And those numbers are very difficult to track down.”
In addition to targeted inspections at borders, the FDA tests products and assesses foreign countries’ regulation of aquaculture facilities, the agency said in a statement. FDA officials are also working on more efficient ways to track down seafood misbranding and adulteration—since there have been numerous cases of mislabeled fish.
Not everyone is convinced the FDA is doing enough. David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for food safety at the consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the border inspection system inadequate, and said the U.S. government database used to target inspections can’t catch “those random situations where somebody makes a mistake or somebody intentionally adulterates food and then tries to ship it in.” Plunkett said a strong random inspection program at the border is warranted.
But Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, called the current system complex but successful.
“If you’re importing seafood to the United States, (importers) have to have a HACCP plan, which demonstrates throughout all of those critical points that safety is accounted for,” Gibbons said. “It really doesn’t just rely on the idea that you have to have someone waiting to inspect the seafood that comes in.”
This story was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent non-profit news organization focusing on food, agriculture and environmental health. Denise Malan of the non-profit Investigative News Network provided data analysis.