May 21 2007

Push for tougher standards continues

Sand Mountain Reporter

By Jan McDaniel

Calls for tougher inspection standards for catfish products imported from China continue after the “stop sale order” issued last month by Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. The order came after tests conducted by the state found dangerous levels of a banned antibiotic in 14 out of 20 Chinese test samples.

The latest move is from Alabama 7th District U.S. Representative Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, who submitted a letter Monday to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calling for regulations to be tightened and supporting Sparks’ decision to enact the ban.

“It is alarming that only 1.3 percent of imported fish, fruit and vegetables are currently inspected,” Davis said. “The FDA, the federal agency with responsibility for the safety of 80 percent of the food supply, needs to take the lead in maintaining a rigorous, flexible and transparent food safety process.”

Tests conducted by the state department of agriculture discovered the banned antibiotic fluoroquinolone, which has been found to allow the development of certain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
This discovery comes on the heels of other issues with Chinese food imports, Sparks said in a press release Tuesday, including wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, which has been connected to animal deaths from pet food in the United States. Melamine is a chemical used in fertilizer in Asia.
“This is a strong message we are sending to Washington, D.C. today,” said Sparks. “The FDA should be the leader in issues of food safety. The bottom line is that our food supply is vulnerable and we are working toward making it better.”
In addition to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana also have banned the sale of Chinese catfish, and the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, has removed catfish fillet products from China from its shelves.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama successfully co-sponsored an amendment with fellow Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby and six other southern senators to make fish, shrimp and other products safer by holding other countries to the same requirements as U.S. producers through increased inspections and the development of a traceability system.
“We have won a several year battle over Vietnam trying to pass off basa fish as catfish, but this actual catfish from China is part of a market that has tripled in the last couple of years, with these countries engaging in ‘dumping’ catfish below the market price just to sell it,” he said.

Other concerns include different techniques China uses in industries like steel, which pollute the air much more than similar factories in the United States.

“We need to keep the pressure on China to clean up its act,” Sessions said. “Inspecting China’s inspection system may be a factor we’ve got to confront.
“We’ve got to keep going in every category and insist they play by our rules and quit cutting corners.”
Sessions said Congress will consider another food safety bill later this year.
Regarding a recent news article quoting the director of the Mississippi Poison Control Center, Dr. Robert Cox, as saying he saw no problem with serving tainted Chinese catfish to his family and children, Sparks said, “I think it is absurd that Dr. Cox would advise people that it is perfectly OK to eat a chemical that is banned by the FDA.

“Our tests results at the Department of Agriculture and Industries have shown that we have a serious problem with imported catfish coming into our country that contain banned antibiotics.

“When it comes to these antibiotics, it is not about how much it takes to eat before it induces an allergic reaction, but that the public is not aware that the products contain these antibiotics.

“If the FDA bans a substance from use in food products, then it becomes each state’s responsibility to see that the ban is enforced.”

He said in Alabama the department has a very good relationship with food distributors and has the ability to help them return products instead of destroying them at a loss.

Sparks also said he was “extremely disappointed” by comments from Roy Aultman, owner of the Super Value in Forest, that referred to Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell “fishing for votes in the Delta” by his action to ban the foreign catfish.