At least 1-million pounds of suspect Chinese seafood landed on U.S. store shelves and dinner plates despite a Food and Drug Administration order that the shipments first be screened for banned drugs or chemicals.
The frozen shrimp, catfish and eel arrived at U.S. ports under an "import alert," which meant the FDA was supposed to hold every shipment until it had passed a laboratory test. But that was not what happened, according to a check of shipments since last fall. One of every four shipments reviewed by the Associated Press got through without being stopped and tested. The seafood, valued at $2.5-million, was equal to the amount 66,000 Americans eat in a year.
The FDA stuck the pond-raised seafood on its watch list because of worries that it contained suspected carcinogens or antibiotics not approved for seafood.
No illnesses have been reported, but the episode raises questions about the FDA's ability to police the safety of America's food imports.
"The system is outdated and it doesn't work well," said Carl Nielsen, who oversaw import inspections at the agency until he left in 2005 to start a consulting firm. "You can't make the assumption that these would be isolated instances."
China is America's biggest foreign source of seafood. The 1.06-billion pounds it supplied in 2006 account for 16 percent of all seafood Americans buy.
President Bush has asked a Cabinet-level panel to recommend better imported food safety safeguards. Chinese officials have promised to inspect fish farms closely for the use of drugs and chemicals, even as they called the FDA's testing mandate illegal under world trade rules.
FDA officials acknowledged that some shipments slip through import alerts, but said overall they work.
"Any time you introduce a human element into something, I don't think you can necessarily guarantee 100 percent," said Michael Chappell, the official responsible for field inspections.
Normally, the FDA inspects just 1 percent of the cargo it oversees. When goods land under an import alert, however, all shipments are supposed to be held until private tests that cost importers thousands of dollars show the seafood is clean. Sometimes, the FDA double-checks those tests in its own labs. Products can be detained for months.