Three Southeastern states in the heart of the U.S. catfish industry had banned Chinese farm-raised catfish contaminated with unapproved drugs months ahead of FDA’s decision Thursday to halt the products nationwide. Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, whose department had taken the first steps on an import ban, said the Food and Drug Administration made the right decision. “I am very excited that the FDA has chosen to follow through with their testing and enforcement activities on this issue,” said Sparks, who had pressured the FDA to act months ago.
He said the federal agency may have felt pressure from Congress. “I think they had possibly seen action taken by Alabama and other states,” he said, “and looked at their examination a little harder.”
In its order, the FDA said it was detaining three types of Chinese fish - catfish, basa and dace - as well as shrimp and eel after repeated testing turned up the unapproved drugs in the products. There are different regulations for each state, making it costly for importers who must pay for product analysis that proves the seafood doesn’t contain the antibiotics nitrofuran and fluoroquinolone, as well as the antifungals malachite green and gentian violet.
The FDA conducted its sampling from October 2006 through May 2007 and repeatedly found that farm-raised seafood imported from China was contaminated with antimicrobial agents unapproved for this use in the United States. Sparks said Alabama had “led the charge” on a critical food safety issue. Mississippi and Louisiana also had banned Chinese catfish earlier this year.
Sparks issued a “stop-sale” order in 2005 for Vietnamese farm-raised seafood and in April of this year for Chinese farm-raised catfish. The Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries first found the contaminant chloramphenicol in imported farm-raised shrimp in 2002.
“It’s required us to put more emphasis in this direction, more inspectors,” Sparks said. Sparks commended his staff and the “hard work of my inspectors.” He said the intent wasn’t to be “punitive or hurt anybody,” but, he said, the health of the public is at stake.
“All we have got to go on is good science,” he said. Sparks said he hopes domestic seafood producers won’t take advantage of FDA’s decision by raising prices. The Chinese catfish imports can be 70 cents on the dollar less than U.S. product, said Jamey Clary, director of the Catfish Marketing Association in Alabama.