Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is authorized to ensure that the nation’s food supply, including certain imported foods, is safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled. Today, the U.S. imports a large percentage of its food products from a growing number of countries around the world, making the oversight of imported foods all the more critical. However, according to a report issued on Monday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), FDA’s oversight program to ensure the safety of imported seafood, in particular, is severely “limited.”

The report, entitled Seafood Safety: FDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Imported Seafood and Better Leverage Limited Resources, states that the U.S. is currently importing seafood from 130 countries. In addition, estimates from the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that more than 80 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. during 2010 was imported, with approximately half being produced in an aquaculture setting.

The problem identified in the GAO report is that fish raised in fishfarm2.jpgconfined aquaculture areas often have high rates of bacterial infections and must be treated with drugs, such as antibiotics and antifungal agents, in order to increase their survival rates. As a result, drug residues can remain in the fish posing serious risks to human health and safety.  Yet, despite those health risks associated with drug residue in fish, FDA’s oversight program is, according to the report, “generally limited to enforcing the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—the internationally recognized food safety management system.” It does not typically include visits to the aquacultures or farms to evaluate drug use or the capabilities, competence, and quality control of laboratories that analyze the seafood.

Marion Nestle, professor, author, and food politics guru, pointed out a few other disconcerting GAO findings in her blog post this morning:  

  • Aquaculture assessments have been limited by FDA’s lack of procedures, criteria, and standards. In contrast, the EU reviews foreign government structures, food safety legislation, the foreign country’s fish farm inspection program, and visits farms to ensure that imported seafood products come from countries with seafood safety systems equivalent to that of the EU.
  • FDA’s sampling program does not generally test for drugs that some countries and the EU have approved for use in aquaculture. Consequently, seafood containing residues of drugs not approved for use in the United States may be entering U.S. commerce.
  • FDA’s sampling program is ineffectively implemented. For example, for fiscal years 2006 through 2009, FDA missed its assignment plan goal for collecting import samples by about 30 percent.
  • In fiscal year 2009, FDA tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues.
  • FDA’s reliance on 7 of its 13 laboratories to conduct all its aquaculture drug residue testing raises questions about the agency’s use of resources.
  • FDA has inspected 1.5 percent of Chinese seafood processing facilities in the last 6 years.

In a Food Safety News article today, reporter Helena Bottemiller explained that Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, in light of the GAO report on Seafood Safety, has called on FDA to do more to ensure the safety of imported seafood. Congresswoman DeLauro is pushing for increased funding for FDA so that the agency can adequately protect the public from unsafe food.

In a statement released about the GAO report, Congresswoman DeLauro said:

The GAO findings further highlight the need to modernize the FDA’s approach to ensuring the safety of imported seafood in order to keep up with the ever-increasing quantities of seafood we import from more than 100 countries. Currently, our testing processes do not adequately test imported seafood for potential chemicals not approved for use in the United States. The Food Safety Modernization Act included several provisions to help meet that need, but we must do more.

Although there have been cuts to nearly every government agency’s budget, DeLauro plans to continue fighting for more resources devoted to food safety. “It will be an uphill battle—but one that must be fought,” she said.