by Craig Weatherby
Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned five kinds of seafood imported from China: shrimp, catfish, eel, basa (a kind of catfish) and dace (a type of carp).
We covered this sickening story last week, and included a little-known angle: the destruction by shrimp farms of coastal mangrove forests essential to seafood sustainability (See “Foreign Shrimp Farms Drive Health and Eco Dangers”).
It’s certainly no coincidence that yesterday’s edition of The New York Times featured Op-Ed contributions by authors of some new books about seafood. We found all of them rewarding reads, and thought you might be especially interested in two.
“Catfish with a Side of Scombroid”: Chinese seafood scandal starts at home
The author of this essay focused on US government failures to take seafood safety seriously, contrasting the anemic budget and inspection regimen in the US to the far more rigorous, robust regime in some European countries.
The writer was Taras Grescoe, author of the forthcoming book Bottomfeeder: A Seafood Lover’s Journey to the End of the Food Chain. (By the way, the scombroid poisoning in his essay title stems from eating inconsistently refrigerated fish that develop high levels of histamine-producing bacteria.)
As Grescoe wrote, America now imports some 6.6 million tons of seafood from 160 different countries, but the Food and Drug Administration has only 85 inspectors working primarily with seafood and physically inspects less than two percent.
And as he says, “The European Union has a fully functioning food safety system, but looking at its food alerts Web site is sobering for another reason: it gives you an idea of how much unsafe seafood the FDA isn’t catching. The European Union physically inspects at least 20 percent of all imported seafood, and when a product is proving problematic… inspection increases to 100 percent, until the problem is resolved.”
Worse yet, the bad actors know how weak our defenses are: “…if you’re a shady seafood dealer trying to unload a container of dodgy shrimp or tilapia, chances are 98 in 100 it will make it into the United States.”
And China is not the only offender, or even the worse one, since we import millions of pounds of seafood from other Asian countries with equally reprehensible contamination records and fish-farm water quality. The FDA reports that the salmonella frequently detected in Asia-farmed fish came from fecal bacteria. In other words, the fish were swimming in human and animal waste.
Mr. Grescoe puts some of the onus on American consumers, who need to demand action from Congress, which has chronically under-funded seafood inspection by the FDA.
And his ending hit the nail on the head: “…remember that excellent seafood is being produced domestically, often in ecologically sound ways, often at only a slight premium over imported prices… Now is the perfect time to splurge on quality.”
“Chicken of the Sea”: Obstetricians’ senseless anti-sushi stance
The second essay in Sunday’s New York Times addressed the cultural blinders and unscientific assumptions that lead Americans—including physicians, who should know better—to reject smart nutritional choices.
Steven A. Shaw—author of Turning the Tables on Asian Restaurants—explored the senseless anti-sushi advice typically given to pregnant women.
As he wrote inyesterday’s New York Times, “When my wife was pregnant with our son, her obstetrician gave her a list of food dos and don’ts. Chief among the don’ts: alcohol, un-pasteurized cheeses and raw fish… [but] my friends in Japan laugh at the notion of avoiding sushi when they’re expecting.”
Mr. Shaw notes that Japanese authorities take public health seriously, but know the developmental value of marine omega-3s and consider raw fish part of good neonatal nutrition: “You can be sure that, were there documented complications resulting from pregnant women eating sushi in Japan, there would be swift government intervention.”
The counterproductive anti-sushi advice given American women stems from the risk of food-borne parasites and shellfish toxins.
But as Shaw reports, these fears are unfounded when it comes to sushi.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, mollusks such as mussels, clams, and oysters—a kind of seafood rarely used in sushi—are responsible for about 85 percent of seafood-related illnesses.
Shaw draws a comparison with illness rates from animal foods other than fish, to telling effect: “If you take raw and partly cooked shellfish out of the equation, the risk of falling ill from eating seafood is 1 in 2 million servings, the government calculated some years back; by comparison, the risk from eating chicken is 1 in 25,000.”
Yet doctors aren’t telling mothers to avoid poultry. The reasons for this disconnect—ignorance and cultural bias—seem inexcusable.
And as the National Academy of Sciences reported in 1991, mollusk-related illnesses stem mostly from eating mussels, clams and oysters in restaurants that do not keep shellfish cold and fail to keep cooked and raw mollusks strictly separate.
Mr. Shaw makes another critically important, but little known point about the safety of sushi: “Food and Drug Administration guidelines require that before being served as sushi or sashimi (or in any other raw form), fish be flash-frozen to destroy parasites. This freezing kills any parasites as sure as cooking would.”
In addition to its high quality, this is why all of our fish and shellfish—which is always flash-frozen—is considered sushi-grade.
But as he says, “…rational analysis doesn’t hold sway with the pregnancy police… [they’ve] twisted logic around to the point where any risk, no matter how infinitesimal, is too much.”
And Shaw pinpoints the problem with this irrational attitude: “…between the warnings about parasites in sushi and about mercury in certain species of fish, pregnant women are being scared off fish altogether. And that’s bad news, since the fatty acids in fish are the ideal nourishment for a developing baby.”
For more on the mercury issue, see “Fight Over Mercury Risks Muddied by Bad Science,” “Mercury-Fighting Mineral in Fish Overlooked in Heated Debate,” and “Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake.”
Steve Shaw ended his enlightening Op-Ed essay with a call for balance and perspective: “…pregnancy should be a time of joy, not stress. The result of an over-regulated pregnancy is fear and negativity. Perhaps the best antidote would be to relax with a salmon roll....”
We couldn’t agree more!
- Grescoe T. Catfish with a Side of Scombroid. The New York Times. Accessed online July 15 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/opinion/15grescoe.html
- Shaw SA.Chicken of the Sea. The New York Times. Accessed online July 15 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/opinion/15shaw.html