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Oil Spill Sparks Concerns About Imported Seafood

Crisis might lead to more imports with limited oversight

The oil spill in the Gulf could lead to more seafood imports.
The oil spill in the Gulf could lead to more seafood imports.

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The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is looming over the seafood industry.

Prices are going up and the crisis could lead to  more imported seafood in the coming months. But some people are questioning the safety of imported seafood.

Lasting impact

Tom Robey runs around like a mad man. Or maybe a mad scientist.

His laboratory is the kitchen. Robey is executive chef at Veranda on Highland in Birmingham, Alabama. His specialty is regional seafood: Louisiana crawfish, Florida crab, Alabama shrimp.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded last month spewing oil into the Gulf, Robey shelled out nearly $3,000 dollars to stockpile 600 pounds of shrimp.

And it's a good thing, because officials closed some of the fishing grounds. It's not clear how extensive and long-term the damage to Gulf seafood will be.

Shrimp are among the Gulf of Mexico's best-known seafood. But 90 percent of the shrimp in the United States is imported.
Shrimp are among the Gulf of Mexico's best-known seafood. But 90 percent of the shrimp in the United States is imported.

Early tests don't show substantial chemical contamination, but monitoring might have to continue for decades. Meanwhile, industry officials expect a shortage of domestic seafood. And other countries are ready to fill the gap.

Imported seafood

We already import about 80 percent of our seafood. But the oil spill is expected to drive that number higher.

Chef Robey says he'll take seafood off the menu before he serves imports.

"I'm nervous about, like, how that seafood was handled, how it was fed, if it was farmed raised," says Robey. "I mean every day there's some kind of recall one or another coming from China."

He may have reason to be nervous.

"I think it's really a 'buyer beware' issue," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Washington DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Safety concerns

DeWaal says when state regulators tested imported shrimp they found it was contaminated with antibiotics and other chemical residues that are illegal in the U.S. According to Dewaal, there is evidence some imported shrimp are grown in contaminated ponds.

Supporters of the industry say - while some tests have caught problems - that doesn't mean all imported seafood is bad.

Norbert Sporns say there's no need to worry. He's CEO of a Seattle-based company called HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries.

They farm tilapia - mostly in China. Sporns says the U.S. has an international certification process that is rigorous and will catch potential problems.

"Prior to export, we are subject to a series of tests," says Sporns. "Once a product lands in the United States, there are other tests that can be administered by the FDA on a spot-check basis. So there are multiple levels of security in place."

Limited oversight

But the FDA only inspects about 2 percent of imports.

Ken Albala is a food historian at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He teaches about food policy and environmental issues. He says, while the cattle industry has been tightly regulated, that's not the case with the fishing industry.

"And when you're talking about a several thousand pound cow versus a bass, let alone a shrimp," says Albala. "I don't see how they could ever begin to inspect consistently what's coming in from abroad. Definitely not."

Right now, Congress is considering a bill that would give the FDA increased authority over imported seafood. So far, the bill has passed the house and is waiting to be picked up in the Senate.

So consumers who want to eat shrimp are faced with two choices: trust that random spot checks find any problems with seafood imports or pay more for domestic, wild harvested shrimp.

And that price could go even higher if the oil spill in the gulf contaminates a good part of the domestic supply.


(Support for The Environment Report comes from the Park Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. You can find more stories - and post your comments - at environment-report.org.)

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