State officials say tainted Chinese catfish safe to eat

The director of the Mississippi Poison

Control Center said Chinese catfish tainted with outlawed

antibiotics pose no threat to those who eat it.

Dr. Robert Cox said he's so sure of that fact, he'd feed the

fish to his family.

"Would I personally worry about eating this? No, not in any

way," Cox said. "I'd serve it to my family and my children. And

I'm not advocating that we eat Asian catfish either, I'm just

saying I'm not worried that there's a danger there."

Contaminated catfish has been pulled from supermarket shelves

all over the state after tainted samples were found by officials.

Lester Spell, the state's Agriculture and Commerce commissioner,

said Friday that hundreds of grocery stores have been inspected and

that many have removed the fish from sale voluntarily after hearing

test results.

Earlier this month tests by officials found ciprofloxacin and

enrofloxacin, members of the fluoroquinolones family of

antibiotics, which are banned for use in the United States.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries conducted

similar tests and last month placed a stop-sale order on all

catfish imported from China. Commissioner Ron Sparks said 14 of 20

Chinese catfish samples had tested positive for fluoroquinolones.

Testing is also under way in Louisiana.

U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., has asked the U.S. Food and Drug

Administration to ban imported Chinese fish being sold as catfish

until an investigation is complete.

The problems with catfish come after the FDA has already raised

concern about the presence of melamine, a byproduct of fertilizer

production, that turned up in pet food that used wheat gluten and

rice protein concentrate imported from China.

Catfish Farmers of America, a trade group based in Jackson, said

fluoroquinolones "can cause serious side effects including nerve,

muscle and heart problems, as well as allergic reactions."

The trade group also said resistance to fluoroquinolones also

can develop rapidly, causing possibly life-threatening consequences

for some consumers.

But Cox, a medical toxicologist who works as an emergency room

physician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said a

person would have to eat 220,000 pounds of the fish to get a full

adult dose of the antibiotic.

Cox reviewed the test results and said the catfish showed traces

of the antibiotics at a level of about one part per billion.

The FDA banned use of the antibiotics in food-producing animals

in 1997.

The Department of Health has sent samples from the catfish

wholesale distributors to an FDA lab in Atlanta. The distributors

have agreed to stop distributing the fish until results come back.

Spell said the amount of antibiotics in the fish, no matter how

small, has no effect on his decision to pull catfish from stores.

He said he is following the FDA's "zero-tolerance" policy.

"We're not in the business of making evaluations of how much is

toxic and how much is not toxic," Spell said.

"Health officials can say, 'OK, we know this is present, but

don't worry about it at these levels, go ahead and eat it.' If they

feel comfortable saying that, they can say that. We can't say any

kind of public health statement like that."

Health Department spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said her agency's

testing follows FDA protocol.

"The FDA has not, with all the information they have had from

the very beginning, has never issued a ban or a recall, ever," she


Asked in an article at why the difference

in reaction between the two state departments, she said, "You'd

have to ask Commissioner Spell that."

Roy Aultman, owner of Aultman's Super Value in Forest, one of

the initial grocery store owners forced to take Chinese catfish off

his shelves, said Cox's evaluation didn't surprise him.

He called Spell's reaction an election ploy, saying he was

"fishing for votes in the Delta," where most of the state's

catfish farmers are concentrated.

"This is purely political. This has nothing to do with reality

whatsoever," Aultman said.