Despite greater scrutiny of imported aquaculture commodities by U.S. authorities, there continue to be concerns that tainted products make it through inspection. Addressing the situation, the following letter, dated Jan. 5, was sent by Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln to Andrew C. von Eschenbach, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration:

I am writing to ask for your agency’s continued vigilance in protecting the American public from tainted seafood from China.

I commend the FDA for taking action last summer to strictly control the importation of farm-raised catfish, basa, shrimp, dace, and eel from China due to recurring antimicrobial contamination (Import Alert #16-131). The public should not have to worry about these chemicals being in the U.S. food supply, which is why I am concerned that Import Alert #16-131 has not been closely followed and is in jeopardy of being discarded.

Under the import alert’s “Detention Without Physical Examination” order, all farm-raised catfish, basa, shrimp, dace, and eel from China are supposed to be inspected at our borders with no exceptions. However, the Associated Press discovered that, even after the Import Alert was issued, at least 1 million pounds of these items made it into the U.S. market unfettered (“‘Import Alert’ for Chinese seafood ignored,” 8 August 2007).

Most troubling of all is that, instead of redoubling efforts to scrutinize suspect suppliers, the FDA reportedly has plans to exempt even more firms and, perhaps, rescind the alert altogether.

This is unacceptable. FDA’s own records reveal that of all the aquaculture seafood China has tried to import into the U.S. since the import alert went into effect, less than half of it passed inspection and was allowed to enter the U.S. market. Clearly, continued vigilance is still necessary.

The FDA must also provide oversight of the private laboratories hired by importers to test seafood for FDA banned substances. This arrangement easily creates conflicts of interest, bringing into question the dependability of their tests.

I understand that due to the threat of melamine contamination of consumer products imported from China, the FDA has expanded its import controls on Chinese dairy products, and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients. I applaud your efforts in that regard. However, I have serious concerns about the possibility that melamine use in China could be more widespread than in solely the dairy sector. Recent press reports indicate that Chinese regulators are widening their investigation into contaminated foods in the face of growing evidence that melamine is used in animal feed supplies.

A recent New York Times article reported that in interviews conducted over the past year with “several chemical dealers who sell melamine suggests that melamine scrap, the substantially cheaper waste left over after producing melamine, has been added to animal and fish feed in China for years.”

This is alarming. In light of the fact that seafood has passed through our borders without inspection despite the import alert, and that there is an ongoing investigation in China into the use of melamine in animal feed, I would like to know the following: What Chinese seafood producers (and fish species) are now being permitted to ship fish into our country with no inspection or testing? Is the FDA requiring importers test for melamine?

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter. I look forward to your response. Please do not hesitate to contact me and my staff with any questions.