In March, inspectors checking Chinese seafood arriving at U.S. ports made some unsettling discoveries: fish infected with salmonella in...

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WASHINGTON — In March, inspectors checking Chinese seafood arriving at U.S. ports made some unsettling discoveries: fish infected with salmonella in Seattle and Baltimore, and shrimp with banned veterinary drugs in Florida.

Meanwhile, a shipment intercepted in Los Angeles on March 19 labeled “channel catfish” wasn’t catfish at all, although records don’t say what it was.

“A lot of those products coming in from overseas, you have no clue as to what is in them,” said Paul Hitchens, an aquaculture specialist in Southern Illinois, where cut-rate Chinese catfish are threatening the livelihood of fish farmers.

China has rapidly become the leading exporter of seafood to the United States, flooding supermarkets and restaurants. And while China agreed late last year to improve the safety of its food exports, the inspectors’ March findings were not isolated cases.

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According to Food and Drug Administration records examined by the Post-Dispatch, inspectors turned away nearly 400 shipments of tainted seafood in a year’s time from China.

The records told a troubling tale, but even more troubling was what they didn’t tell. Only a tiny fraction of imports are inspected at all, and even fewer are tested.

Imports of seafood have surged dramatically in recent years and account for nearly 80 percent of the seafood consumed by Americans. That translates to 4.8 billion pounds of imported seafood last year out of the 5.8 billion pounds consumed.

The United States is just starting to confront the challenge: In an increasingly globalized food supply, the government — using an antiquated inspection system — is unprepared to keep Americans safe from the dangers arriving at our ports.

“When you look at less than 1 percent of shipments, and sample and test maybe one-fifth of those, there’s no way you can protect the American food supply,” said Michael Taylor, a former FDA official who is professor of health policy at George Washington University.

Seafood is considered one of the riskiest imports, and those from China have risen steadily. When the FDA does turn away shipments, usually it is because they contain veterinary drugs, among them nitrofurans, a family of antibiotics banned by the FDA because tests showed they cause cancer in animals.

More than 100 of the shipments were rejected for being filthy, decomposed or otherwise unfit for consumption, according to the records.

In December, after disclosures about Chinese imports of poisonous pet food and lead-filled toys, the FDA and the Chinese government agreed on new procedures aimed at preventing tainted and dangerous food and drugs from reaching American shores. But skeptics question whether the new, voluntary arrangement has sufficient teeth.

Revamping the system

Meanwhile, Chinese seafood is a prime target of legislation in Congress to revamp decades-old inspection mechanisms.

FDA officials are requesting new authority, including the ability to license private companies to assist with inspections. But the Bush administration has signaled opposition to key provisions that would require regular inspections in foreign lands and limit ports where food can arrive to docks with FDA labs.

Former FDA officials argue that change is urgently needed.

William Hubbard, formerly the FDA’s associate commissioner, noted that the FDA’s inspection system was designed early last century when the big challenge was finding bugs or mold in arriving barrels of commodities like flour or molasses. Now, the U.S. gets millions of shipments of food each year from around the world.

Hubbard, who retired in 2005, recalled inspectors reporting particularly disturbing methods of Chinese aquaculture: raising chickens in cages kept above fish-ponds — a potential source of the salmonella in seafood, he said.

“Increasingly, the world is moving in a better direction in food safety and we’re falling behind,” Hubbard said. “As our system becomes more antiquated and more ineffective, the world is sending us their junk.”

Supermarket frozen-food sections routinely are filled with imported fish fillets, shrimp and crabmeat — which must contain country-of-origin labels on packaging.

No such disclosure is required for fish served in restaurants, so people generally can’t know with certainty where the fish or shrimp they ordered originated.

Records at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show how surging Chinese imports are meeting the demand of seafood-loving Americans. For instance, between 2000 and 2007, imports of farm-raised tilapia from China — a staple in restaurants — soared ninefold, to more than 240 million pounds.

Imports of catfish have been especially vexing to U.S. seafood interests, given the whiskered bottom-feeder’s popularity in parts of America.

In four years, imports of Chinese catfish — or fish so described — increased from 1.6 million pounds to more than 22 million pounds last year, posing stiff and sometimes crippling competition for U.S. catfish farmers.

Jeff McCord, spokesman for the Catfish Institute, said that many of the more than 1,000 catfish-growers he represents saw their revenues plummet.

Posing a new threat

It’s usually impossible to track down the source of food-borne illnesses, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, occur 76 million times annually in the United States, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

But fish — particularly uncooked or improperly cooked — is a common source of problems. And the rapidly growing imports from China pose a new threat that needs attention, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food-safety expert at the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In China and elsewhere in the developing world, “the ability to produce food and ship it globally far surpasses their ability to ensure it’s safe,” she said.

Experts agree that change is needed to protect Americans from dangerous imports. The question now is how much change Congress will demand and how much change the Bush administration and the FDA will be willing to accept.

Last year, U.S. and China officials began discussing changes amid disturbing revelations about dangerous products from poisoned pet food to shoddy tires.

In an agreement reached by the FDA and its Chinese counterparts in December, seafood was accorded the status of “high-risk” because of ongoing problems. Now, the FDA says, both sides are pursuing initiatives that the FDA hopes will lead to an FDA office in China and an electronic certification system for imports arriving in the United States.

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