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Contaminated Seafood Sneaking Past Security

Keeping seafood safe for consumers requires testing imports for unapproved drugs. Should buyers be given the information about the origins of their seafood and make the call themselves?

While federal law makes it possible for consumers shopping at grocery stores to learn where their seafood came from, most restaurants are under no obligation to reveal how far the seafood traveled to get to a diner's plate. And since chances are it did not come from the United States - where chloramphenicol, nitrofurans, and malachite green, for example, are prohibited for use in aquaculture - there is a legitimate reason to wonder how much of the imported seafood that Americans are eating contain these toxic chemicals.

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MSNBC's "Today Investigates" reported that state tests in Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia are finding sometimes more than 40 percent of the imported seafood they tested contain drugs that are considered potential causes for cancer, anemia and birth defects.

But the report failed to quantify how much of the national imports these state tests represent. For comparison, the Food and Drug Administration, tasked with keeping Americans food supply safe, reports finding less than 7 percent of all the aquaculture samples they test contain unapproved drug residues. Still, the FDA reportedly only has the resources to test 2 percent of imported seafood, when 80 percent of fish and 90 percent of shrimp on American plates come from overseas.

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The "Today" report singles out shrimp, catfish, crabmeat and tilapia imported to the U.S. from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia:

"The FDA is under resourced," says Michael Hirshfield, a scientist with the conservation group Oceana. "The FDA needs to do a much better job of inspection. They don't do enough," he told Discovery News.

"There needs to be a documented chain of custody so we know the farm the fish was raised in, or the boat that it was caught on. That kind of information is the backbone of a food safety system," he added.

But John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the imported seafood industry, told "Today" that "studies do not indicate that Americans are deeply interested in the source of their fish or other proteins."

Discovery News wants to know: Do you care which ocean or fish farm your seafood comes from? If the restaurant doesn't tell you, do you ask?

Monica Allen a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service in Silver Spring, Md., told Discovery News that NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program, which works on a fee-for-service basis, tests an estimated 20 percent of imported seafood consumed in the United States. But they reject imports less often for contamination reasons and more often because the seafood is simply underweight or has other non-conformance or "economic integrity issues."

Click here for the FDA's response to the "Today" story

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