In Canada this month a Chinese sea food company was in strife after a cancer-causing antibiotic was detected in a shipment of frozen shrimp. That in itself was not such a great surprise because there have been many questions recently in many parts of the world about the quality of Chinese products.

What made the case of Zhanjiang Guolian Aquatic Products Corp different was that it alone among Chinese seafood exporters was exempted from automatic U.S. Food and Drug Administration safety inspections. Zhanjiang Guolian was supposedly the good guy in the growing Chinese seafood trade but the US Department of Health and Human Services did not know it has been on Canada’s “import alert” list, subjecting its shipments to greater scrutiny until told by the Wall Street Journal.

China’s booming aquaculture business is having an increasing influence on the Australian market as well, with many of the prawns thrown onto the Christmas barbecues next week sure to have been raised in fish farms The New York Times described recently as “contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides.”

In the year ending October Australia imported $154 million worth of fish and crustaceans from China – up from $121 million the year before. Yet Australian food authorities are yet to publicly raise the same doubts about quality control as their North American counterparts.

As the attitude seems to be let the buyer beware, perhaps a few extracts from the NY Times article are appropriate before Crikey readers make their festive purchases:

“Our waters here are filthy,” said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing. “There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They’re all discharging water here, fouling up other farms.”

Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.

Environmental degradation, in other words, has become a food safety problem, and scientists say the long-term risks of consuming contaminated seafood could lead to higher rates of cancer and liver disease and other afflictions.

No one is more vulnerable to these health risks than the Chinese, because most of the seafood in China stays at home. But foreign importers are also worried. In recent years, the European Union and Japan have imposed temporary bans on Chinese seafood because of illegal drug residues. The United States blocked imports of several types of fish this year after inspectors detected traces of illegal drugs linked to cancer.

This week, officials from the United States and China signed an agreement in Beijing to improve oversight of Chinese fish farms as part of a larger deal on food and drug safety.

Yet regulators in both countries are struggling to keep contaminated seafood out of the market. China has shut down seafood companies accused of violating the law and blacklisted others, while United States regulators are concentrating on Chinese seafood for special inspections.

Fuqing (pronounced foo-CHING) is at the top of the list this year for refused shipments of seafood from China, with 43 rejections through November, according to records kept by the United States Food and Drug Administration. All of those rejections involved the use of illegal veterinary drugs.

By comparison, Thailand, also a major exporter of seafood to the United States, had only two refusals related to illegal veterinary drugs. China as a whole had 210 refusals for illegal drugs.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey