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Domestic vs. Import: Do you know where your dinner was born??

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Do you know where your shrimp has been? It’s a simple question, but one few seafood eaters ponder when ordering off the menu of their favorite restaurant. If you’re dining anywhere in the U.S., it’s likely the answer is “far, far away,” as in China or Vietnam. The same holds true for all kinds of seafood favorites, like founder, king crab, catfish, tilapia, and more. In fact, information published by NOAA says that 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported from other countries. As a result, the U.S. has an annual seafood trade deficit of more than $9 billion. This economic pressure, along with concerns over food safety and the environmental impacts of transporting foods long distances have a number of advocacy groups touting the benefits of choosing domestic over imported seafood.

The economic argument for buying domestic seafood is really not any different than the argument to buy anything else domestic rather than imported; support of the local economy and American producers helps build jobs at home, improves local incomes, helps create additional support industries, generates tax revenue, and generally pumps fuel into the local economic engine. The problem is, that while often patriotic, consumers (you and I) have also proven to be fiercely loyal to the concept of getting the most perceived value for their money. So, while we would like to support the homefront, stretching a paycheck often takes precedence. As a result, the argument for domestic seafood has become more sophisticated.

One issue gaining prominence in the import vs. domestic debate is the environmental impact of transporting fish halfway around the globe. U.S. consumers are far removed from the most prolific fish-producing countries in Asia. What is the carbon footprint of a serving of shrimp after it’s shipped from Thailand? Is that better or worse than shrimp caught locally? Questions like these fall into what researchers call “Life Cycle Assessment,” which looks at everything from environmental impacts of different fishing and farming techniques to the amount of energy used to produce and ship a particular product. (There is a big difference in efficiency between shipping frozen food via container ship or flying fresh product overnight.) It’s a relatively new field of study, with much of the recent work focused on methods of study and standardization of terms rather than coming to firm conclusions.

That said, evidence is mounting that it is often much more environmentally friendly for U.S. consumers to buy local rather than imported foods. Shrimp is a good example. Food and Water Watch, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, recommends wild-caught Gulf shrimp for U.S. consumers over imported farmed shrimp from places like China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Their concern is the environmental and social impact of the farms is seen as quite high, with communities facing issues like water pollution, erosion, and loss of land for other activities.

Similarly, wild fisheries in foreign countries may not be well regulated or size and catch limits may not be well enforced. Simply put, if 84 percent of seafood being consumed in the U.S. is coming from other countries, then the majority of seafood we eat is not caught or farmed under the guidelines set forth by the National Marine Fisheries Service division or under regulations of the Food and Drug Administration. It means things like catch limits, drug treatments for farmed fish, and even water quality standards that consumers may take for granted in the U.S. do not apply to the way seafood is harvested or grown abroad.

This difference in regulation is easily seen in the issue of food safety. For example, in November of 2009, Alabama officials halted the sale of imported Asian catfish from certain shipments after 18 of 40 samples drawn from different batches tested positive for fluoroquinolones, an antibiotic banned for use in food within the United States. And, this is not a limited incident. According to the FDA’s import refusal database, 47 shipments of catfish and catfish-like species were refused entry at U.S. ports in 2010 for a number of violations. Sixteen of these shipments were “channel catfish” refused for the presence of veterinary drugs banned for use in food within the U.S. Twenty seven shipments of “Asian catfish” species were refused due to banned drugs, false labeling, and the presence of salmonella. The remaining four shipments were non-catfish products that also harbored salmonella.

On one hand, such news is encouraging, because it shows the effectiveness of inspection efforts. On the other, it raises the question about what might be slipping through the safety net. Food and Water Watch noted in a 2008 report that while seafood shipments grew by 15 percent between 2003 and 2006, the number of imported fish samples taken for laboratory analysis fell by 25 percent. According to their calculations, less than one in a million pounds of seafood imported into the U.S. is tested by the FDA, or under FDA authority.

This obviously low-rate of sampling has generated both concern and action. In April of this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report entitled “Seafood Safety” that calls on the FDA to improve its oversight and better leverage its resources in screening imports for drug residues that are known to be harmful for human consumption. The report was a follow-up to a pledge made in 2009 by the FDA and NMFS to make improvements in this area. The GOA report concludes the FDA’s program is “limited” and not on par with even what is done by the European Union.

Specifically, it draws attention to the fact that FDA inspections of foreign suppliers and processors mainly involves reviewing records, but not actually visiting farms “to evaluate drug use or the capabilities, competence, and quality control of laboratories that analyze the seafood.” It noted that “better leveraging available resources is critical, especially in places like China, where FDA has inspected 1.5 percent of Chinese seafood processing facilities in the last six years.” It also notes that sampling rates of shipments are woefully low. Between 2006 and 2009, the FDA missed its sampling goals by 30 percent, and in 2009 tested just 0.1 percent of all seafood imported for drug residues.

The bare facts of the GAO report on potential drug residues in imported seafood are eye-opening for the uninitiated, but generally, some caution may be needed. The counter argument from importers is often along the lines of “the market drives the industry,” and “if it’s unsafe, it won’t last,” claiming the self-regulating virtues of a free market. Certainly, recent salmonella outbreaks or other issues involving regular agriculture products have proven that once a product like tomatoes or bean sprouts gets bad press, no one will buy them and the world supply is voluntarily purged by restaurants and grocery stores.

There is also a sense of caution by domestic producers in highlighting potential pitfalls of an imported product, be it from a safety issue or that of environmental impacts, because of guilt-by-association. “For domestic seafood producers or fish farmers to be critical of imported seafood is a tough issue because U.S. consumers are, by and large, not really seafood experts,” says Paul Zajicek, of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “So when seafood producers or fish farmers are critical of imported seafood it usually comes across to the consumer that there is something wrong with ‘fish’ and, in an abundance of caution, consumers choose another protein.” The better approach, he says, is for domestic producers to concentrate on a positive sell of domestic seafood so consumers get the message that it’s a great choice.

In that regard, domestically caught or farmed seafood has a lot going for it. Not the least of which is that it’s subjected to an alphabet-soup of government regulation, from NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which monitor fishing regulations, to the FDA, the EPA, the USDA, and others (along with respective state agencies) which oversee food safety and environmental impacts. Heap on all of this the positive economic effects of supporting domestic industries and the reduced environmental stress of shipping seafood thousands of miles, and the decision to buy seafood close to home becomes less about “dollars per pound” and more about “impact per pound.” With that view, the shrimp on your fork carries a lot of weight.

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