News Alert: Safety Issues with Vietnamese Seafood Persist

Safety Issues with Vietnamese Seafood Persist; Little Progress on Development of Detection Tools

The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) recently released a formal statement responding to the Southern Shrimp Alliance’s concerns regarding exports of farmed seafood from Vietnam.  Arguing that the industry has addressed the use of harmful chemicals in aquaculture, VASEP claims that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development officially banned the use of Trifluralin and placed Cypermethrim, Deltamethrin, and Enrofloxacin on a list of chemicals prohibited from use in fish and shrimp farming.  VASEP argues that detection of harmful chemicals has fallen significantly and that in the first two months of 2012 no violations were reported in the European Union or the United States.

Had VASEP used the “Check Your Supplier” page of the Southern Shrimp Alliance’s web-site, it would have seen that this claim is inaccurate.  In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected a shipment of Vietnamese shrimp for veterinary drug residues on February 15, 2012 (entry line: 082-0326447-1/1/1).

Problems persist in other markets as well:

  • The Japanese government reports rejecting 24 shipments of shrimp products from Vietnam for the presence of harmful chemicals (including enrofloxacin (19), chloramphenicol (1), nitrofurans (2), and trifluralin (1)) in the first three months of 2012.
  • The Canadian Government’s Mandatory Inspection List reports that at least 12 Vietnamese shipments have been rejected for the presence of harmful chemicals (including fluoroquinolones (8), triphneylmethane dyes (2), nitrofurans (1), and amphenicol (1)) in the first three months of 2012.
  • Even Australia reports rejecting two shipments of Vietnamese fish fillets (one for enrofloxacin and one for three different types of fluoroquinolones – ciprofloxacin, enrofloxacin, and ofloxacin) in January of 2012.  Australia also reported rejecting three more shipments of Vietnamese fish fillets for the presence of enrofloxacin in November and December of 2011.

Despite this, VASEP accuses the Southern Shrimp Alliance of distorting Vietnam’s record for protectionist purposes while other Vietnamese language news outlets have characterized the SSA’s comments as unfounded smears.

In 2011, Vietnam was the fifth-largest exporter of shrimp to the United States, shipping nearly 100 million pounds of shrimp to this market (accounting for roughly 8% of the total imported shrimp supply).  No other major foreign exporter of seafood products has raised the same serious food safety concerns as Vietnam.  Vietnam’s record over the last year is stunning:

  • In 2010, Vietnam accounted for less than 6% of the volume of seafood imports into the United States.  Yet, in the fourteen month period between January 2011 and February 2012, Vietnamese products accounted for nearly 10% (313 of the 3,310) of the seafood entry lines refused by the FDA.
  • In the fifteen month period between January of 2011 and March of 2012, Vietnamese shrimp contaminated with harmful antibiotics or fungicides accounted for over 8% of all of the rejected food imports in Japan (132 of 1,566).
  • As of April 3, 2012, of the 48 companies listed on the Canadian Government’s Mandatory Inspection List for fluoroquinolones or quinolones, 35 are from Vietnam (73%).  Of the 7 companies listed by the Canadian Government for amphenicols, 4 are from Vietnam (57%).  Of the 26 listed for triphenylmethane dyes, 10 are from Vietnam (38%).  Of the 41 listed for nitrofurans, 8 are from Vietnam (20%).
  • Since January of 2011, the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) reports eighteen (18) cases where residues of veterinary medicinal products were found in imports of fish and fish products, half of these cases (9) involve fish imports from Vietnam.

Again, no other major seafood exporting country has displayed such an abysmal record with regard to control of banned antibiotics and herbicides in aquaculture. This is not the unfounded or unilateral opinion of a domestic industry group.  These are the findings of regulatory agencies responsible for the safety of imported food in Japan, Canada, the European Union, and Australia.

These results cannot be spun; the problems presented by a failure to control the intentional use of harmful chemicals in Vietnamese aquaculture are self-evident.  In our view, the fact that the problem has been allowed to fester is partially an indictment of poor controls over potentially harmful seafood imports by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but is more a reflection of widely-held apathy towards the problem by U.S. companies that distribute and market imported shrimp.

Four years ago, the Southern Shrimp Alliance and the Catfish Farmers of America provided funding for an initiative by AOAC International to develop rapid tests for the detection of harmful chemicals in shrimp, catfish, and tilapia and multi-residue laboratory methods intended to substantially reduce the costs of confirming the presence or absence of these chemicals.  The initiative was also financially supported by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as well as one U.S. company working with imported seafood, Slade Gorton.  Although the initiative has progressed, with objective scientists and experts in the field working to find ways to lower the costs of detection, efforts to improve technical abilities to detect harmful chemicals have not been embraced or actively supported by the larger U.S. seafood importing community.

Low cost methods for detecting and preventing contaminated seafood from reaching consumers present the most effective strategy for eliminating the use of harmful antibiotics and herbicides in aquaculture once and for all.  Nevertheless, little progress has been made on this front and discussion of the problem breaks down exactly the same way as it always has:  U.S. fishermen are protectionists for raising it, the Vietnamese industry and importers of Vietnamese seafood issue public relations assurances that the problem has been handled (despite all evidence to the contrary), and the FDA says it will look into contamination issues sometime in the near future.  While this is not surprising, facts remain facts and alarm bells should be ringing.

In lieu of greater scrutiny by the FDA and distributors of imported seafood from Vietnam, it is left to consumers and activists to ask hard questions of retailers and restaurants carrying these products as to what efforts have been undertaken to insure that they are not contaminated.  No one else will and no one else has.  Because harmful antibiotics and herbicides are intentionally applied, this is a problem with an easy solution.  All we need to do is ask and ask again and ask again until contamination is no longer tolerated.

Read VASEP’s response to SSA here: (in Vietnamese) (in English)

Read Vietnamese-language article characterizing SSA’s comments regarding Vietnamese seafood exports as unfounded: (in Vietnamese)

Review a list of names of Vietnamese exporters included on government lists for rejections or concerns regarding banned antibiotics or herbicides, current as of April 9, 2012:

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