Why Is the FDA Inspecting So Little Seafood from Vietnam?

The magazine Mother Jones published a short article by Tom Philpott yesterday that asks “Why is the FDA inspecting so little imported seafood?”  The post refers to the recent story by Bloomberg Businessweek on aquaculture conditions in Vietnam and China as well as concerns regarding the continued use of banned antibiotics in foreign aquaculture voiced by reporters, activists, and FDA officials.  Reviewing the material, the article concludes by observing that “those results surely suggest that the FDA needs to ramp up its oversight.”

Nowhere is this more true than with imports of seafood from Vietnam.  Vietnam exports nearly half a billion dollars worth of shrimp to the U.S. each year, making it the fifth largest supplier of imported shrimp to this market.  At the same time, the Vietnamese seafood industry continues to be plagued by an abysmal food safety record in major markets throughout the world.

In September, the Food and Drug Administration reported refusing four shipments of seafood of Vietnam.  This was the lowest amount of seafood refused from Vietnam since January 2007.  Over this sixty-nine month time period, the FDA has refused 1,524 Vietnamese seafood shipments (more than 22 a month) accounting for 12.6% of all imported seafood.

The massive decline in FDA refusals implies significant improvements in the quality of Vietnamese seafood exported to the United States.  However, in a letter to the FDA sent yesterday, the Southern Shrimp Alliance demonstrates that the agency’s findings are inconsistent with the uniform findings of Vietnam’s other trading partners.

The same month that the FDA refused only four entry lines of Vietnamese seafood:

  • The Canadian Food Inspection Agency added at least seven more Vietnamese exporters to its Mandatory Inspection List (MIL), three of them for the presence of fluoroquinolones; and
  • The Japanese government rejected nine shipments of Vietnamese shrimp – including one for the presence of the fluoroquinolone enrofloxacin and another for the presence of the nitrofuran furazolidone.

These findings are fully in line with what has been a terrible year for Vietnamese seafood in 2012.  So far this year:

  • the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) has issued ten alerts for the detection of veterinary drug residues in crustaceans, of which two (20%) are for shrimp from Vietnam;
  • 39 of the 54 companies on Canada’s MIL for fluoroquinolones are Vietnamese (72%).  Incredibly, 20 of these 39 exporters had shipments refused for the presence of fluoroquinolones in 2012 alone;
  • The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) has reported 278 distinct imported food entry failures on its monthly Failing Foods reports between January 2012 and August 2012.  Of these, 10 (3.6%) are for Vietnamese seafood products contaminated with fluoroquinolones.
  • Through mid-October, Japan has rejected 826 shipments of various imports for violations of its food sanitation laws.  Of these, 52 (6.3%) represent rejections of Vietnamese frozen shrimp imports.

In every other major seafood importing market outside the United States, Vietnamese seafood has raised alarms, particularly because of the continued presence of banned antibiotics in aquaculture exports.  Not so here.  Despite repeated consistent objective findings of contamination, there is little to indicate that the FDA has increased scrutiny of imports of farmed seafood from Vietnam.


The short article in Mother Jones quotes the assistant director of Food & Water Watch offering a possible explanation:  “It’s a resource question but it’s also a political-will question, because when you look harder, you will find stuff.”  And, as Philpott observes, if you find stuff it means friction with important trade partners.

Whether you believe the theory or not, the fact is that the FDA’s findings regarding Vietnamese seafood imports remain significantly out of line with Vietnam’s other major trading partners.


John Williams


Read Tom Philpott’s (Mother Jones) “Why Is the FDA Inspecting So Little Imported Seafood?” (Oct. 22, 2012):

Read the SSA’s October 22, 2012 Letter to FDA here:

Read SSA’s October 5, 2011 Letter to the FDA here:

Read SSA’s January 10, 2012 Letter to the FDA here:


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