Americans are constantly bombarded with warnings that the seafood we eat is contaminated with salmonella, listeria, or some other antibiotic, fungicide, or microorganism that will make us sick.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking more samples of imported seafood, holding more seafood for laboratory analysis, and rejecting more seafood than in past years. That is true of basa from Vietnam, crabmeat from Indonesia, and a variety of seafood from countries as far away as China, or as close to the United States as the Bahamas.

The FDA issues ‘Import Alerts’ to attempt to prevent  contaminated seafood (or specific products) from certain overseas suppliers from entering the food supply chain in the United States.  Seafood importers should be very familiar with Import Alert 16-81 – “Detention Without Physical Examination of Seafood Products Due to the Presence of Salmonella”.

The Obama Administration’s Import Safety Working Group Food Protection Plan encourages the FDA to issue more Import Alerts.  An Import Alert is an order to all FDA district officials to detain and examine imported seafood that is identified on an Import Alert, or to detain and examine any seafood shipped by an overseas company  that is listed on the Import Alert (i.e. the “Red List”).

Import Alerts are issued on an almost daily basis by the FDA.  For Import Alert 16-81, the “Charge” reads as follows:

The article is subject to refusal of admission pursuant to Section 801(a)(3) in that the product appears to contain salmonella, a poisonous and deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to heath. [Adulteration, Section 402(a)(1).]

The explanation for such a food safety procedure was explained in a 2004 report to Congress by the U.S. General Accountability Office in Report 04-426 with a scathing criticism of the FDA’s “Food Safety” program.

More than 80% of the seafood that Americans consume is imported from an estimated 13,000 foreign suppliers in about 160 nations. If contaminated, imported and domestic seafood can cause foodborne illnesses with problems ranging from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to neurological damage.

Next year, when Congress passes, and the President signs, a new food safety law, suppliers, importers, warehouses, and transportation companies should all expect a lot more changes from the FDA.  The U.S. House of Representatives already approved H.R. 2749 entitled “Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009,” and the Senate is now debating S.B. 510 entitled “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010.” With reports that now 90% of our seafood is from overseas, the increased use of aquaculture, and the continuing threat of contaminated seafood, companies which are manufacturing, shipping, warehousing, and transporting seafood will have to face the reality of more government regulation.