Mike the Mad Biologist

More scary food news from China: Chinese catfish have been found to contain fluoroquinolone residues. Fluoroquinolones are medically important antibiotics and include ciprofloxacin (“Cipro”) and enrofloxacin (which has been banned from agricultural use in the U.S.). Not only can fluoroquinolones be toxic and cause allergic reactions, but this means that China is probably still misusing these vital antibiotics. From the Clarion Ledger (italics mine):

Catfish contamination at some Mississippi grocery stores could indicate a much larger problem with the safety of imported foods, state Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell said Wednesday.

His department put a stop-sale order on some imported Chinese catfish Tuesday at four Mississippi grocery stores and said the scope of its testing has broadened.

Samples from the four stores tested positive for traces of an antibiotic banned by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration.

“When you send four samples in there and all four of them – coming from different areas across the state – are positive, that’s an indication this could be the tip of the iceberg,” said Spell, who initiated the testing after Alabama last week discovered some banned substances in its foreign catfish.

“I think the problem is really widespread in imported fish.”

Spell said 12 to 14 inspectors will seek out more foreign catfish statewide. The department also will be testing the samples for pesticides, which it routinely does on Mississippi catfish.

He said his purview is limited to retail grocery stores. The state Department of Health regulates food safety at nursing homes, public schools, hospitals and restaurants.

The Health Department, which has come under heavy scrutiny recently, would not make anyone available to discuss its potential response. The department issued a written statement Wednesday attributed to Tim Darnell, director of environmental services.

“The Food and Drug Administration is the lead regulatory agency for imported food of this type. The Mississippi Department of Health is in contact with the FDA and will take the FDA’s direction in this matter. MDH will also continue to utilize the FDA food code,” the statement said.

Spell said he didn’t know what the Health Department’s role would be.

“I think it does beg the question, what’s being bought and cooked in public schools and hospitals, nursing homes?”

About 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected by the FDA.

“FDA is not doing thorough screening and testing,” Spell said. “Obviously, we can’t wait on the federal government to do their job because they either don’t have the manpower or the money or the will to do it.”

The FDA said no one was available for comment Wednesday when asked about the catfish, responding with its own written comments.

It said sampling and testing of shipments is only a part of the FDA inspection program, which also includes examination of entry documents provided by an importer. Its Web site says a decision not to collect a sample of imported food is based on the nature of the product, FDA priorities and the commodity’s past history.

It would not answer a question on whether there was a need to beef up inspections.

The tests in Mississippi showed the presence of ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin, which are in the fluoroquinolones drug family. The FDA said they are antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections.

Fluoroquinolone antibiotics can cause serious side effects, including nerve, muscle and heart problems, as well as allergic reactions, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Not only are the health implications for consumers disturbing, but part of the residues are probably from illegal use, although it doesn’t help that fluoroquinolones have a half-life of about 200 days (some of the contamination may be due to previous use, not current use). However, the whole melamine scandal doesn’t give me much confidence in the Chinese regulatory system.

However, if one is irresponsible and willing to externalize the costs of fluoroquinolone use, this can have a significant impact on economic output (the fish suffer less disease, and you can increase pond yield):

Barlow said Chinese catfish began entering the country around 2004, and its volume has increased dramatically each year. In the first two months of this year, those imports were up 727 percent over the same two months last year, he said.

China, he said, is not “the 800-pound gorilla; it’s the 8,000-pound gorilla.”

“They’re undercutting our market by as much as a dollar per pound,”said Barlow, who also serves as the executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America.

Another stellar success of neo-liberal laissez-faire economics.