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DONT DRINK THE WATER...AND DONT EVEN THINK ABOUT THE FOOD

Catfish The FDA move on seafood came at the end of a bad spell for Chinese products imported into the U.S. Pet food made with aminopterin-laden wheat gluten caused the deaths of thousands of cats and dogs. Chinese-made toothpaste was found to contain diethylene glycol, an antifreeze thickener, and had to be pulled from shelves. And parents went ballistic when it was discovered that the Chinese had used lead paint on thousands of Thomas the Tank Engine toys sold in the U.S.

But while these stories were making headlines, concern about the integrity of seafood imports from China was developing rapidly behind the scenes. Here’s how Roger Barlow, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America, sized up the problem in his industry earlier this year.

�During the 12 months ending January 2007, 49 shipments of Chinese farmed catfish were refused by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because they contained banned and potentially dangerous chemicals and antibiotics,� he says. �In January 2007 alone, 10 shipments were refused entry, up from two refusals in January 2006.� Doesn’t sound like much? Factor in that only one percent of shipments are inspected and you get an idea of how big the problem might be.

What do inspectors find in these fish? To keep aquaculture production going despite poor water quality and overcrowded pond conditions, Chinese fish farmers rely heavily on a variety of chemicals and antibiotics that are banned for human food use in the U.S. Residues of these substances are what show up in catfish and other species China exports to the U.S.

The State of Alabama conducted its own testing program earlier this year, and the results were scary. State officials collected 20 samples of catfish imported from China for analysis, 14 of which tested positive for fluoroquinolones, an antibiotic banned in the U.S. Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks issued an automatic �Stop Sale� order for all catfish from China after the tests. Mississippi and Louisiana followed suit.

Now the FDA has taken a much bigger step. On June 29, the agency halted the sale of five species of farm-raised seafood from China: shrimp, catfish, eel, basa (a catfish-like fish sometimes passed off as grouper by less-than-scrupulous operators) and dace, a low-end fish. These species can still be imported into the U.S., only now there’s a trust-but-verify situation. Chinese seafood exporters must submit their product for independent testing before it can be sold, and that testing must demonstrate the seafood is contaminant-free.

The impact on full-service restaurants could be significant. China is the largest single exporter of seafood to the U.S., supplying 22 percent of the total. Shrimp, tilapia, scallops, cod and pollock are the top imported species, and only shrimp is affected by the USDA action. For its part, the catfish industry would like to see product labeling in restaurants in addition to inspections of imported products. Supermarket retailers must comply with federal Country of Origin Labeling regulations that require them to list where products are grown. There is no such rule for restaurants. Seventy percent of catfish consumption occurs in foodservice outlets.

For its part, China bristled at being singled out by the new FDA regulations, saying that the food items it imports from the United States have problems of their own. �Just like the foods imported by China from the U.S., there are quality problems with aquatic products that are exported to the U.S. by some Chinese enterprises,� said a statement posted on a Chinese government website. �China has cooperated and handled these problems properly.�

Part of that �handling� included the demise of Zheng Xiaoyu, even though most of his problems related to bribes involving fake drugs rather than contaminated food. In the United States, such behavior by a high-ranking government official would typically cause him or her to resign from office, only to resurface with a high-paying job at a law firm, consulting company or lobbying outfit a couple of months later. Not China; it was determined that Zheng Xiaoyu had to go, which in his case meant the death penalty.

�We should seriously reflect and learn lessons from these cases,� said Yan Jiangying, a spokesperson for the State Food and Drug Administration in reflecting upon the various food issues. �We should step up our efforts to ensure food and drug safety, which is what we are doing now and what we will do in the future.�

That immediate future includes hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It’s no coincidence that the crackdown on unsafe food in China escalated after a string of inquiries from athletes, coaches, officials and tour providers from around the world. They were wondering how best to insulate themselves from contaminated food and water, which brought into sharp relief just how bad China’s worldwide reputation for food safety was. �All the procedures involving Olympic food, including production, processing, packaging, storing and transporting will be closely monitored,� promises Sun Wenxu, an official with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

That monitoring has already turned up one interesting approach to food cost control. Two days ago, Beijing officials closed down a dim sum restaurant because it was selling steamed buns stuffed with pork-flavored cardboard.

Here’s how the Shanghai Daily described the dish.

�The recipe went like this: Cardboard was soaked in water and an industrial-use caustic soda, a poisonous chemical, was added. The cardboard lost its normal color and became fragile under the soda’s strong causticity, making it look more like pork. Finally, pork-smell essence and pork fat were stirred into the concoction to make the stuffing more ’vivid.’

’It may save me almost 1,000 yuan (US$132.14) a day,’ said the shop owner.�

Stories like this help you understand why Olympic visitors want to bring their own food with them next year. And they also help make the point about why listing the country of origin for the seafood items on your menu might help put your customers at ease.

Footnote: In compiling this story, we noted that every news account about the death of Zheng Xiaoyu carefully neglected to mention how his sentence had been carried out. It turns out that China employs two methods of execution—a hollow-point bullet to the head, fired at close range from an assault rifle; and lethal injection. An ongoing public relations problem for the government is that common criminals tend to get the bullet, while higher-ranking officials guilty of corruption get the preferred lethal injection method. It’s a touchy class issue in a society where there aren’t supposed to be any classes. We’ll never know how Zheng Xiaoyu met his demise, but the news blackout suggests that he met his demise via an injection.

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