Federal agencies need to do more to ensure the safety of imported seafood, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. Imports account for more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S., with about half coming from aquaculture (fish farming) in countries like China, India, and Vietnam. However, the report states, not enough is being done to monitor and prevent the introduction of farmed seafood that may contain residues of drugs that can pose risks of cancer or allergic reactions in consumers.
Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s hazard analysis and critical control point regulations require foreign processors to identify hazards (e.g., pathogen contamination) and the critical control points where those hazards are likely to occur and to take corrective action. According to the report, the FDA inspects a limited number of foreign seafood processing facilities each year (two percent of the total in fiscal year 2016) to identify potential problems prior to export and to aid in admissibility decisions. However, these inspections do not include visiting the fish farms that supply processor facilities or laboratories that may be asked to test for unsafe drug residues, which the FDA said is because neither type of facility is subject to the HACCP regulations.
The FDA also requires U.S. importers to verify that foreign processing facilities are HACCP compliant. One method of doing so is to obtain seafood from countries that have food safety system equivalency agreements with the FDA, but no such agreements existed as of June 2017. Instead, importers typically use attestations that processing facilities comply with the HACCP regulations, but they are not required to visit those facilities. In recent years the FDA has inspected an average of four percent of seafood importers to gauge compliance.
Further, the report found that in fiscal year 2015 the FDA tested just 0.1 percent of about one million seafood entry lines for drugs of concern in an effort to detect unsafe residues. That testing revealed that 9 percent of catfish, 12 percent of shrimp, 11 percent of tilapia, and 7 percent of other seafood tested positive for such drugs.
The GAO recommends that the FDA pursue formal agreements with other countries requiring that they test seafood exported to the U.S. for unsafe drug residues, as the European Union has done. The FDA had not entered into any such agreements and was not actively pursuing any as of June 2017 despite a 2013 plan committing the agency to coordinate with other countries to increase their capabilities related to the safety of food exported to the U.S. FDA officials said it might be worthwhile to pursue agreements with some countries but that they have not received any requests to do so and would have to carefully consider a number of factors in determining which countries would be appropriate, which has not yet been done.
Food Safety and Inspection Service. In 2016 the FSIS assumed responsibility for inspecting imported and domestic catfish from the FDA. As of Sept. 1, 2017, countries seeking to continue exporting catfish to the U.S. are to request determinations that their catfish safety inspection systems are equivalent to that of the U.S. This process can take several years to complete, during which time FSIS continues to allow catfish imports from the country provided it continues to timely respond to requests for additional information.
The GAO finds that FSIS has not made fish farm visits a routine part of its initial equivalence determination and verification on-site audits, which makes it difficult to comply with a mandate in the 2014 farm bill to consider the conditions under which catfish are raised. This conclusion is somewhat misleading, the FSIS responded, because no initial equivalence determinations have yet been made and no such audits have therefore yet been conducted. The GAO acknowledged this fact but recommended that when such on-site audits are conducted they should include visits to at least a sample of farms that export catfish to the U.S.
The GAO adds that while FSIS will require foreign countries to develop and implement residue monitoring plans, it does not and has no plans to require them to test for drugs of concern to the U.S. This means that the first time imported catfish may be subject to testing for residues of such drugs is likely to be if and when it is selected for sampling at a U.S. port of entry. The GAO recommends that FSIS require exporting countries to test for all drugs of concern to the U.S. at the outset of its equivalence determinations.