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Untested Waters: Feds take small steps toward inspecting more seafood

Shrimpers say changes are a good sign but not enough

YSCLOSKEY, La. (InvestigateTV) – In hopes of making a dent in safety issues associated with the growing amount of foreign seafood coming into the United States, the federal government recently announced two changes: a new safety strategy and $3.1 million of additional funding.

Congress increased the FDA’s inspection budget for foreign seafood, and the FDA created new measures to assess risks on food from different countries. Those changes address some of the concerns that InvestigateTV reported in February.

InvestigateTV showed that 99.9% of foreign seafood goes to American stores and restaurants without testing for unsafe drugs, but when the FDA does test, federal reports showed it finds evidence of banned drugs in about 10% of fish.

The new federal plans and funding spark both optimism and skepticism. Yet domestic fishermen still wonder: Are these changes enough to keep Americans safe from potentially contaminated fish and stop overseas foreign competitors from drying up an American industry?

Imports continue to increase

Longtime shrimper George Barisich had just come in from Breton Sound off the Gulf of Mexico after five days and four nights on the water. With him were two crew members and 3,500 pounds of fresh shrimp. Imaginably tired, Barisich, 63, was still eager to talk about the industry on which he was raised – an industry he said keeps changing.

“You worked hard, but you made good money back in the day. Now you work twice as hard for half the money,” Barisich said.

He sat perched in his captain’s chair, looking out his front window, eyeing his father’s fishing boat in the water, the F.J.G. It was named for his children – George and his siblings.

Capt. George Barisich stands at the front of his shrimping boat, the Peruga. Barisich has faced a number of challenges in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. This year, he said Midwest flooding has caused an unprecedented amount of fresh water to pour into the Gulf from the Mississippi River, meaning many shrimp are dying or moving out of the area. (Jamie Grey/InvestigateTV)

In recent decades, Barisich has battled a number of challenges that other fishermen have also faced in the Gulf: natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina and recent Mississippi River flooding that’s forced too much fresh water into the shrimp’s saltwater habitat – and man-made crises like the BP Oil Spill.

One of the most marked changes Barisich has faced since he learned to trawl on the F.J.G. is the rise of imports. The FDA now estimates 94% of seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad. Just 20 years ago, that number was closer to 60%.

“Imports are flooding the market, and the worst part about it is that they’re flooding the market with product that is not healthy to eat,” Barisich said.

After analyzing FDA data on seafood imports, InvestigateTV reported in February that farm-raised shrimp was the most turned-away seafood – and, between January 2014 and November 2018, it was the most frequently rejected for unsafe drugs.

A new analysis by InvestigateTV of the most recent seafood data showed that between February and May 2019 Snapper from Brazil was the most refused seafood, followed by shrimp.

The most frequently cited reason the FDA rejected shrimp in recent months was for contamination from nitrofurans, an antibiotic banned in food animals because the FDA says it is cancer-causing. These drugs are especially dangerous in seafood because they don’t disappear during cooking.

One company, Freshly Frozen Foods in the United Arab Emirates that advertises providing healthy and pure foods, had its shrimp refused for nitrofuran violations in both April and May.

That company has been on an FDA import alert “red list” for that very issue since 2018, according to the agency’s records. The FDA issues import alerts on specific companies, products or geographic areas when it has evidence that products may be violating U.S. laws – it then classifies groups into green, yellow, and red lists, with red being the most severely scrutinized. Freshly Frozen Foods did not respond to emails asking for comment.

As of early July, there were 47 foreign companies on the red list for nitrofurans. The red list designation puts those companies, including Freshly Frozen Foods, under greater scrutiny from the FDA – including that its products could be detained without being physically examined.

That example highlights the effort and execution of the FDA’s system to stop contaminated fish from coming into the United States. But it also illustrates another concern: What is in the six billion pounds of seafood that comes in every year that is never examined?

‘What’s going on is dangerous’

Congress has been concerned with imported food safety for years. It has specifically directed federal government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, to study foreign seafood safety.

In 2017, the GAO released a study on import and inspection data it was able to obtain from the FDA, which is the primary oversight agency for imported seafood. It found of the small amount of sampling done by the agency, about one in ten samples are found positive for unsafe drugs. Twelve percent of shrimp tested positive in the 2015 fiscal year.

“These things are shot full of antibiotics, chemical dyes. I mean, if you eat enough of this foreign seafood, you’re going to grow an extra ear!” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican.

Last year, Kennedy proposed an amendment along with the state’s other senator, Bill Cassidy, that will increase foreign seafood inspections by 26%.

“The FDA is supposed to inspect foreign seafood, but in the past because of lack of resources, they haven’t done a very good job. And I want them to start inspecting more,” Kennedy said.

President Donald Trump signed the appropriations bill with the increase in February. That boost in inspections funding amounts to $3.1 million more than the previous year.

The new funding is an improvement but also a proverbial drop in the bucket. Currently, about 2% of imported seafood is inspected in some way. Kennedy believes the increased funding will increase that percentage to 3 to 4%.

Though Barisich, the shrimper, said it’s not enough of an increase, the fact that there is any increase in funding gives him some hope.

“It is giving us a sign,” Barisich said. “More people have come to understand what the chemical problem is.”

Kennedy said he plans to keep pushing for funding to move the needle more – toward inspecting 10 to 15%. That would still pale in comparison to the amount of inspections the European Union runs. Johns Hopkins researchers found in a 2011 study that the EU inspects as much as 50%.

New FDA policies

At the end of February, the FDA also announced new food safety strategy for imported food. The agency noted an upward trend in food being imported – with a special mention of the vast amount of seafood being brought into the country.

The announcement said the FDA would be working to achieve four goals: stopping safety issues before food gets into the U.S., finding and rejecting unsafe food at the borders, responding quickly to issues, and measuring progress.

In its plans, the FDA made specific mention of doing onsite foreign food facility inspections and requiring importers to prove they are meeting U.S. food safety standards.

“We’ll take new steps to continue to ensure that food offered for import meets the same standards as domestically produced food,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

The statement also indicated the agency will be assessing other countries’ regulatory oversight to focus on imports that will be the riskiest. So far, the FDA says it has recognized Canada, New Zealand and Australia as having standards comparable to the U.S. It is currently working to assess the EU.

The FDA would not respond to interview requests for this story, and the spokesman who previously provided limited answers to InvestigateTV in February did not respond to emails asking about the new strategy.

One of the GAO’s recommendations for years was for the FDA to pursue formal agreements with other countries to ensure food safety standards were equal. The GAO said it has not yet evaluated the FDA’s new plans to see if they satisfy the recommendations made in its reports.

The FDA said it is also adding new data to its system that helps inspectors flag food to stop for inspection at the borders. Gottlieb did note it’s impossible to stop all contaminated food and wrote that the agency has plans to more quickly act when those products do make it in – such as using mandatory recalls.

“Despite our best efforts to prevent and stop unsafe food from entering the U.S., it’s impossible to completely stop all unsafe food products before they hit our market,” Gottlieb said.

Plans for addressing unsafe food that make it into the country include improving the process for people to notify the FDA of potentially unsafe foods and developing new performance measures for how effective the food safety program is, which will be made public.

Pushing for destruction of contaminated seafood

Lawmakers and fishermen told InvestigateTV that the moves by the FDA to better the inspection process are going in the right direction – but they want more done.

First, they want contaminated seafood destroyed. Currently, when the FDA does find contaminated food and rejects it, the fish is returned to the exporter.

“We’re trying to get to the point like the European Union does, if they inspect it and it’s bad, they destroy it,” Barisich said. “In this country, they inspect it, put it back in the truck and send it to another port, and it circumvents [other inspectors] and comes in. Something’s wrong with that equation.”

Meanwhile, there is another problem with foreign seafood that Kennedy wants stopped: foreign governments subsidizing seafood. In some cases, the Department of Commerce said these subsidies can lead to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. This practice harms the health of oceans, the world’s fish supply and, ultimately, the U.S. fishing industry.

“Until they give my people a level playing field on which to compete and stop sending tainted seafood here, I’m going to continue to chase them like a hound from hell,” Kennedy said.

Barisich said while it’s getting more difficult to keep up with the changing industry, he’ll be out on the water as long as possible – catching wild shrimp he’s proud to say come from the Gulf, what he calls his “pond,” just as his father did.

“I don’t have any antibiotics. I catch them right here,” Barisich said. “My ponds are designed by God.”

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