The U.S. fish population has steadily depleted over the last decade due to over-fishing. This has made America dependent on seafood imports from other parts of the world, where food safety standards are not as strict. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is on the front lines of the battle to prevent dangerous seafood from making it onto our dinner tables.
At this time there are extensive surveillance program in which we are collecting samples. And looking for bacteria or toxins, or food additives, industrial chemicals, even drug residues.
The Los Angeles seaport is one of the largest sea ports in the United States and the fifth largest in the world. From an FDA perspective, volume is a big challenge. We visited one of a number of seafood processors and distributors that FDA inspects to see firsthand how investigators take samples for micro or chemical contaminates to make sure that the seafood is wholesome and safe to eat.
In addition to regularly scheduled field inspections, the FDA conducts unannounced inspections often prompted by consumer complaints. The minute there is any evidence that the products are hazardous, the FDA will work with customs to detain it and refuse entry to the United States.
One of the biggest hazards is seafood contaminated with live microbiological organisms. The FDA invited us into its high-tech microbiology lab in Irvine, Calif., where seafood collected during inspections is put through rigorous testing.
"The primary test we run is for salmonella, one of the organisms that we'll find that food picks up during processing. We will always test for salmonella. We'll also test for Listeria. Listeria is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. It can cause abortions and miscarriages. Our rate for finding violative samples runs anywhere between five to ten percent," explained Donna Williams-Hill.
The other major hazard threatening consumers is chemically contaminated seafood.
"Seafood can come in and be tested for a multitude of things. One of them is the presence of pesticides in the tissue. We screen for about 200 to 250 pesticides. We find three to five percent of all the samples we run to contain pesticides at violative levels," says Williams-Hill. "Seafood could be tested for heavy metals like lead and mercury. Mercury in fish is problematic. Seafood could be tested for filth, it could be tested for antibiotic residues, it could be tested for histamines. Different products have different problems."
Because microbiological and chemical contaminants can only be detected in the lab, the role of the FDA is crucial. But when it comes to spotting spoiled fish, the most reliable guide is our nose.
In fact, the FDA employs professional "noses," known as Organoleptic technicians.
'Organoleptic analysis' is the smelling of fish or other seafood creatures to see if it has decomposed or not. They are looking for decomposition smells, or sour smells.
With so much fish being imported from all over the world, the FDA is only able to test about two percent of our seafood. So they stress the critical role the public plays in keeping America safe from seafood contamination.
The FDA maintains a consumer complaint line. If you have a problem, you get sick, or you have a suspicion something's wrong, you can call the FDA.
There is some good news on the horizon… with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the FDA has been given more authority to require importing countries to abide by U.S. food safety standards.
In the meantime, the FDA will continue to analyze… probe… and sniff.
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