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Monday
May162011

GAO: Could Drug-Tainted Fish Be Slipping Through the Safety Net?

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. government is doing far less than other countries to keep drug-tainted fish off dinner tables.
 
A congressional investigation finds the U.S. Food and Drug Administration samples a tiny fraction -- just 0.1 percent -- of all seafood imports for drug residues. Inspectors visit few importers, even fewer overseas seafood processors and none of the farms. The Government Accountability Office report, written in April but just released Monday, paints the FDA’s approach to seafood safety as outdated and oversimplistic.
 
Americans are eating more fish and most of it -- 84 percent -- is imported from 130 countries. Half of that imported fish is raised on farms. Those crowded pens can be rough places for fish to survive. To keep them alive, farmers feed the fish antibiotics and other drugs that can remain in the meat when it shows up on your plate -- and that can lead to antibiotic resistance.
 
Nearly a quarter of all the fish imported to the U.S. comes from China, a country that allows fish farms to use the antibiotic tetracycline. Vietnam, the largest source of imports for farmed catfish and the third-largest source for farmed shrimp, allows use of the antibiotic neomycin. But the FDA conducts no test for either drug.
 
“In 2007, Japan detected excessive levels of tetracycline residues in the shrimp products it imported from China and in 2010, the EU detected excessive levels of neomycin in imported catfish from Vietnam. Because FDA does not include tetracycline and neomycin in its sampling program, it has no assurance that seafood containing these drug residues has not entered the United States," said the report.
 
In total, Vietnam allows the use of 38 drugs, most of which are not approved for use in the United States, in fish farms.
 
The United States has approved just five drugs for use in fish. But countries that send seafood to the United States use dozens of other unapproved drugs. When the FDA does look for drugs, it has a target list of 16.
 
“Canada tests its imported seafood products for more than 40 different drugs, select EU member countries test for 50 drugs, and Japan tests for 57.”
 
And the FDA has fallen short in looking for the drugs that are on the target list. The United State bans treating fish with nitrofurans, another type of antibiotic, because prolonged exposure may cause cancer. But the GAO found the FDA collecting too few samples.
 
When the agency does inspect fish, it can take weeks (average of three weeks) to get a result. But one sample took more than five months to come back from the lab.
 
The GAO also determined FDA inspectors spend much more time looking at paperwork than at fish.
 
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