Thursday, July 05, 2007

Catfish Blues

Another Salvo in the Moderate-Intensity US-China Trade War

Planning to eat 100 tons of Chinese catfish? Relax. The FDA's got your back.

The FDA import alert targeting Chinese catfish, eel, basa, dace, and shrimp contaminated with antibiotics and anti-microbial agents revived recollections of the Chinese aquaculture industry.

Based on my past experience, the FDA’s prime directive vis a vis Chinese aquatic imports has traditionally involved preventing American consumers from becoming violently, acutely ill by products that had been improperly handled or stored after harvesting.

I remember a grizzled veteran of the shrimp trade telling me that unscrupulous importers faced with the rejection of a load of nasty frozen shrimp by the FDA could divert the rejected container to Mexico, thaw the product, wash it with chlorine to lower the bacteria count, refreeze it, and import it as Mexican product.

Yum! as Rachel Ray would say.

The current to-do about Chinese aquatic products has to do with an entirely opposite issue: China’s use of drugs as feed additives to prevent the spread of disease among live creatures in the ponds--and the long term risk of prolonged exposure to these drugs for U.S. consumers.

Farm-raised fish and shrimp are a huge business in China and throughout Asia. In China, enclosing coastal areas and creating fish ponds is seen as a way to utilize marginal coastal lands and improve farmers’ incomes through production of high-value, exportable crop. Chinese governments, corporations, and the World Bank have pitched in to create the necessary, expensive infrastructure of ponds and processing plant.

The downside of farm-raised aquatic products is that density=profits.

Which means you have a gazillion shrimp or carp swimming around inside an enclosed pond that is basically a gigantic fish toilet. To add to the biological load, you dump feed into this stew and hope that the critters eat (most of) it before it sinks to the bottom.

All sorts of bacterial, fungal, and algal yuck breeds in the ponds, can spread like wildfire through the population, and can even contaminate the mud at the bottom so thoroughly that the pond has to be drained, limed, and left to rest for a couple seasons until it is usable again.

Just as in the poultry industry, dosing the feed with antibiotics is a way to keep a pond full of sellable product, instead of thousands of pounds of dead, dying, or sick fish with fungus on their lips and gills or with holes eaten their heads by rampant bacterial infections.

In the United States, the FDA bans a certain class of antibiotics—fluoroqinolones—because widespread use quickly results in the emergence of nasty, resistant strains of bacteria.

If fluoroquinolones ring a bell it’s because one of the varieties—one used as a veterinary product, as a matter of fact—is ciprofloxacin a.k.a. Cipro a.k.a. the anthrax-killer that Americans hysterically stockpiled in the aftermath of 9/11.

Three states—Mississippi, Alabama, and Lousiana—banned Chinese catfish when it tested positive for fluorquinolones. An Alabama congressman, Artur Davis, made it a national issue, Chuck Schumer pontificates, and bingo there’s an FDA import alert, not just against certain importers but the whole country.

Even though the director of the Mississippi Poison Control Center stated (h/t to Left in Alabama) that you’d have to eat 220,000 pounds of Chinese catfish before getting sick...

...and the potential advantages of ingesting huge quantities of Cipro-laced Chinese catfish as an anthrax prophylactic have been inexplicably unaddressed.

Well, maybe not so inexplicably.

Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana may not be at the forefront of food safety, but they are the leading producers of farm-raised catfish and shrimp, the very products threatened by Chinese imports.

The Mississippi Delta, home of the blues, is also heart of the U.S. catfish industry. Big farms in places like Tupelo—Elvis’s home town--and the euphoniously-named Belzoni produce catfish, votes, and political clout.

This clout was displayed in 2005, when the same three states sounded the fluoroquinolone alarm against Vietnam, and Vietnam banned use of the antibiotic in response (the Mises Institute provides the protectionist backstory and waxes indignant here).

This year, I guess because it’s China, the FDA decided to pile on, dinging China for traces of carcinogenic anti-microbial e.g. anti-fungus agents malachite green, gentian violet, and nitrofuran in its aquaculture exports as well as fluoroquinolones.

You have to wonder how bad gentian violet can be, considering it’s used on tampons and to treat thrush in infants.

China’s injection of trace quantities of fluoroquinolones and carcinogenic anti-microbials in a limited sector of the U.S. food supply certainly isn’t an acute health risk.

As the FDA itself said ,

The products "could cause serious health problems if consumed over a long period of time," said [FDA Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection David Acheson].

Still, Acheson added, the low levels of contaminants means that there is "no imminent threat" to the public health.

And from the LA Times :

FDA officials, however, said the small quantities of the banned chemicals found in testing were not enough to pose an immediate threat to human health.

"We are not asking for this product to be withdrawn from the market or for people to take it out of their freezer and throw it away," said Margaret Glavin, head of the FDA's enforcement branch. "This is a long-term health concern … not an acute concern."

You get the feeling there’s a lot of things in the U.S. food supply that’s going to kill us a lot quicker than Chinese dace, basa, eels, shrimp, and catfish.

And that the FDA, by issuing an import alert against the entire country of the PRC, is making some kind of political statement instead of a public health move.

After fluoroquinolones were detected in Vietnamese catfish in 2005, the FDA response was kinda different:

Under FDA regulations, when an outlawed chemical is found in a product imported into the US, the importer is placed on a black list, and five more shipments from that importer would be tested before the import ban would be lifted.

Nevertheless, it’s not a bad idea to bring the Chinese feed and food industry in line with higher U.S. standards, so it’s easy to forgive the FDA for a piece of enforcement that’s a teeny bit politically motivated and selective.

In a heartening example of positive blowback, the Chinese central government is apparently responding to Western investigative reporting by making food safety a focus , and try to make the case for the CCP as steward of the Chinese peoples’ well-being and not just the reckless enabler of a grab the buck and damn the rules post socialist oligarchy.

Despite these potentially laudable outcomes, regulatory activities on the international stage that are skewed by politics and protectionism bring a certain set of problems with them.

Selective enforcement begets selective enforcement, or tit begets tat.

Torn from the headlines :

BEIJING - China said Saturday it had rejected a shipment of pistachios from the United States because it contained ants, the latest indication the government may be retaliating as Chinese products are turned back from overseas because of safety concerns.

The state television report, which showed inspectors wearing face masks and sealing the shipping container that held the pistachios, indicated an increasing push to show that other countries also have food safety issues. On Friday, Chinese food safety watchdog announced that shipments of health supplements and raisins from the U.S. had been returned or destroyed because they did not meet quality control standards.

If we want to turn food and product quality into an anti-China club, China has signaled it’s going to hit back.

Obliquely harassing China through a campaign of trade-related enforcement actions may seems to be a good match for the tactical impotence of the Bush administration and the passive-aggressive tendencies of the Democrats in negotiating with China.

However, the same unilateralism, tactical expediency, and political opportunism that make these enforcement actions cheap and easy to apply also signal the dearth of political will and international consensus backing them...

...and will encourage the targeted party to escalate instead of compromise if it believes it holds the stronger hand.

Time will tell if the Bush administration's targeted application of anti-dumping, anti-subsidy, and inspection measures against China will yield anything more than rancor and stalemate.

In our moderate-intensity trade war with China, the benefits to the United States, its businesses, and its consumers may be nugatory.

Perhaps the Chinese consumer protection movement will emerge as the real victor instead.

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