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In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took the unusual step of issuing an “import alert,” warning that scallops harvested by a seafood company in central Philippines had tested positive for hepatitis A.
The “red list” alert effectively banned De Oro Resources from exporting its scallops to the United States indefinitely — until the company could prove them safe.
But by the time the alert was issued — three months after a cluster of hepatitis A cases was first reported — the tainted scallops had been widely consumed at Genki Sushi locations on Oahu and Kauai, eventually sickening 292 people.
Now the Hawaii Department of Health is bracing for another outbreak: Earlier this month, it was announced that frozen ahi cubes imported from Indonesia and distributed to a dozen Oahu establishments tested positive for hepatitis A. No illnesses have been reported so far.
The fact that tainted scallops and ahi made it into Hawaii’s food supply is hardly a surprise: The FDA lets in the vast majority of imported seafood without so much as a cursory inspection.
Saddled with budget constraints, the FDA typically inspects less than 3 percent of the more than 5 billion pounds of imported seafood each year — and tests even less for pathogens like E. coli, hepatitis A and salmonella.
Some countries do much more, inspecting 20 percent to 50 percent in Europe, up to 15 percent in Canada and 18 percent in Japan.
The FDA has a patchwork of other safeguards, and the seafood industry polices itself to some degree.
But Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group, says the system is essentially an open invitation to unscrupulous operators to cut corners.
“If you’re an importer who has a lucrative deal with a supplier who may not be following all the rules, are you going to roll a dice and still work with them knowing that there’s only a tiny chance that the FDA will look at you?” Lovera said.
Lovera said the dominance of imported seafood — more than 90 percent of what’s consumed nationwide and about 60 percent of Hawaii’s consumption — underscores the importance of having a stronger inspection system.
“We need to get this right,” Lovera said, “because the stakes are so high with seafood.”
There is growing evidence that the FDA’s lax oversight is putting the public’s heath at risk.
According to a March study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of foodborne-illness outbreaks caused by imported food of all types has been on the rise — from an annual average of three in the late 1990s to 18 from 2009 to 2014.
The CDC found that imported seafood had a particularly dismal record, causing more outbreaks — defined as two or more illnesses from “ingestion of a common food” — than any other food category.
In Hawaii, last year’s hepatitis A outbreak and this year’s ahi scare are not isolated incidents. In 2010, for instance, imported frozen ahi caused a salmonella outbreak in Hawaii and five other states, sickening more than 50 people. Two years earlier, another batch of imported frozen ahi infected 35.
Still, Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations at the National Fisheries Institute, whose membership includes foreign and domestic seafood companies, said the alarm over imported seafood is mostly overblown.
Overall, he said, imported food has a better safety record than domestic products. According to the CDC, about 20 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported, but it accounts for only 5 percent of outbreaks.
Gibbons also noted that seafood tends to sicken fewer people — causing a median of three illnesses per outbreak, compared with a median of 40 illnesses caused by imported produce, according to the CDC.
“When there’s reporting on food safety scares, a lot of it is based on outbreaks,” Gibbons said. “When a consumer hears about it, they rightly raise their antenna. But they’re usually missing a larger picture.”
Peter Cassell, spokesman for the FDA, points out that the inspections at ports of entry are just one cog in the “imported seafood safety program.”
Since 1997, for instance, the FDA has mandated what’s known as HACCP — “hazard analysis and critical control points” — requiring all seafood processors and distributors to identify potential hazards for foodborne illnesses and develop a plan to mitigate them.
Under the FDA regulations, the mandate applies beyond U.S. borders: All seafood importers are required to verify that their foreign suppliers have a HACCP plan in place.
But critics say it’s essentially an honor system, largely reliant on the seafood industry to police itself.
Thomas Kraft, founder of Norpac Fisheries Export, a seafood processing and distribution company based in Honolulu and Seattle, says the system can be spotty.
“I can tell you that not all HACCP plans are equally as good as the next,” Kraft said. “And it’s very possible that, because the system is reliant upon industry oversight — in other words, I have to look at another company’s HACCP plan — a potential is there for perhaps not as rigorous review to take place.”
That’s why, Kraft said, Norpac takes extra precautions — such as sending its employees to inspect foreign facilities and paying third-party auditors for testing.
“I’ve been in the business long enough to know that not many people do what we do because it’s expensive,” Kraft said. “It’s basically a trade-off. What’s more expensive — adding an extra layer of checks and having a certain level of confidence that your food is safe or taking the chance without it? To me, (taking extra precautions) is worth it. It’s a brand protection.”
The FDA in recent years has stepped up the inspections of foreign facilities that export seafood to the U.S. According to Cassell, the number rose from 98 in fiscal year 2008 to 207 in fiscal year 2016.
Still, only a fraction is inspected each year, given that about 17,000 seafood processors export to the U.S.
Large-scale distributors and grocery stores often go beyond what’s required under the FDA regulations and, like Norpac, set up their own safety protocols.
Foodland, for instance, requires its distributors to test imported ahi before allowing it into any of its stores. The same is true at Times Supermarkets, which also calls for random testing of imported oysters.
But the system can break down. Times Supermarkets received some of the tainted ahi earlier this month despite its safety protocols.
Chris Borden, senior director of marketing and merchandising at Times Supermarkets, said the problem was that its distributor, Tropic Fish Hawaii, delivered the tainted ahi to eight of its stores before receiving test results.
Borden says he’s working with Tropic Fish to prevent that from happening again.
“We would never want to intentionally endanger anyone — that’s why we try to do any checks we can realistically do to ensure that the products we sell are safe to the consumers,” Borden said.