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Video: Is your favorite seafood toxic?

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    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back at 7:43. And this morning on TODAY INVESTIGATES , could your favorite seafood be dangerous? Wait until you see where some of it comes from. NBC 's Jeff Rossen is here with what he found out. Morning to you, Jeff .

    JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Hi, Meredith. Not to break your heart, I know you love seafood .

    VIEIRA: I do.

    ROSSEN: But most of it -- and even though we eat a lot of it in this country -- most of it doesn't even come from here. In fact, 80 percent of fish and 90 percent of the shrimp actually come from overseas. This morning our TODAY investigation has found some of your seafood may have toxic chemicals, causing serious health issues. Sauteed, fried or fresh, we love seafood . Appetizing, for sure. Until you see where some of it comes from. This video shot by a US advocacy group shows dirty sewage water used to raise seafood in Vietnam , the fish pumped with toxic antibiotics and banned drugs just to keep them alive, boosting production and driving down costs. Would you consider this a public health threat?

    Mr. RON SPARKS (Commissioner, Alabama Department of Agriculture): Oh, absolutely.

    ROSSEN: Ron Sparks is the commissioner of Alabama 's Department of Agriculture , one of the only states testing imported seafood for these dangerous drugs like chloramphenicol, nitrofurans and malachite green, chemicals so toxic to humans they're banned in all food.

    Mr. SPARKS: In some cases, between 40 and 50 percent of our tests will come out positive.

    ROSSEN: That's a disturbing number.

    Mr. SPARKS: It is to me. That's why we continue to test.

    ROSSEN: State tests in Oklahoma , Mississippi and Georgia show similar

    results, all targeting seafood with the worst record of contamination: shrimp, catfish, crab meat and tilapia imported to the US from China , Taiwan , Vietnam , Malaysia and Indonesia , in many cases, officials say, ending up in our country's restaurants and grocery stores .

    Mr. JOE BASILE (Seafood Chemist, Alabama Department of Agriculture): Unfortunately, consumers can't tell if any of these compounds are in their seafood . You can't smell it, can't taste it, you can't cook it out.

    ROSSEN: So how dangerous are these chemicals? Scientists say over time eating this tainted seafood could cause anemia, cancer, even birth defects. The FDA says the risks are long term and not fully understood. While the FDA is responsible for keeping the nation's food supply safe, our TODAY investigation found it tests less than 2 percent of imported seafood .

    Mr. SPARKS: They're not going to get caught. I mean, they're sending tons of seafood to this country. And if you only catch a small percentage of it, why would they stop?

    ROSSEN: Does the FDA need to do more?

    Mr. SPARKS: I would certainly suggest that the FDA do more.

    ROSSEN: And it's an ongoing problem. While government tests show US seafood is free of these contaminants, even back in 2007 this congressional subcommittee report found " seafood imports remain especially problematic," and the " FDA lacks sufficient resources and authority to ensure food safety ." The FDA declined to speak with us on camera, but said it's doing the best it can, targeting its testing on companies and countries that are repeat offenders and rejecting their products until they're proven safe. Yet it keeps happening. In fact, according to FDA test results obtained by NBC News , this year alone 8 percent of seafood it tested from China was tainted, and from Taiwan 16 percent of seafood tested was tainted as well. Is that acceptable to you?

    Mr. JOHN CONNELLY (President, National Fisheries Institute): Any use of unauthorized antibiotics is unacceptable.

    ROSSEN: John Connelly runs a trade group representing the imported seafood industry. The FDA says seafood from overseas is still coming in with the toxic chemicals, it's been a problem for years, and it's not stopping. So what are the importers doing to stop it?

    Mr. CONNELLY: I'm just saying, any unauthorized use of antibiotics is inappropriate. The vast majority of seafood coming in does not exhibit any kind of problems.

    ROSSEN: You're claiming that no tainted seafood is making it from overseas onto our dinner tables?

    Mr. CONNELLY: I'm saying that any use of unauthorized antibiotics is inappropriate.

    ROSSEN: He says most importers follow the rules and this problem is being overblown as a trade issue. He says this video of polluted fish ponds and raw sewage is misleading. Instead, he gave us his own video of picturesque fish farms in Vietnam . But it keeps happening year after year after year. Why?

    Mr. CONNELLY: Unfortunately, there are bad actors in every industry.

    ROSSEN: But when you buy seafood , chances are you don't know where it comes from. While federal law requires grocery stores to disclose its country of origin ...

    Offscreen Voice #1: Where's the tilapia from?

    Offscreen Voice #2: China .

    ROSSEN: ...in restaurants, where most of us eat our seafood , it's a different story. Most states don't require them to tell you where it's from at all.

    Unidentified Woman #1: That's awful. I'm totally in shock.

    Unidentified Man: We label everything. Why wouldn't we label our seafood ? Why wouldn't we label our fish?

    Unidentified Woman #2: Most people do try and eat more fish because it is healthier for you, and you want to know where it's from.

    ROSSEN: Would you support legislation where we would know, no matter where we go, where our seafood is coming from?

    Mr. CONNELLY: Studies do not indicate that Americans are deeply interested in the source of their fish or other proteins.

    ROSSEN: As a consumer, don't I have a right to know where my seafood is coming from, especially knowing what we know now?

    Mr. CONNELLY: I think that consumers should feel comfortable that FDA does a good job.

    ROSSEN: But some officials say until more seafood is tested, consumers are at risk.

    Mr. BASILE: It is a cat and mouse game. They quite honestly don't care about the health of United States citizens .

    ROSSEN: Some officials say this isn't just a health issue. American fishermen who play by the rules say they're losing their jobs because they can't compete with importers who are cutting the corners and selling their tainted seafood much cheaper here in the US. You know, Meredith , I don't mean to scare everybody. Most of the seafood coming in, even from overseas, is safe. The problem is, even in restaurants, you don't know, unless you ask your server, and even then they're under no obligation to tell you. The key is in grocery stores to read the labels and see which country it's coming from.

TODAY
updated 11/17/2010 8:15:08 AM ET 2010-11-17T13:15:08

When you think of tainted seafood, you may think of the Gulf oil spill. But 80 percent of the fish and shrimp Americans eat actually comes from overseas — and a TODAY investigation that aired Tuesday found that some of that seafood may contain toxic chemicals that can cause serious health problems.

Footage taken by a U.S. advocacy group of seafood being raised in Vietnam, for example, showed fish in dirty sewage water, pumped with toxic antibiotics and banned drugs just to keep them alive, boosting production and driving down costs.

‘Disturbing number’
Ron Sparks is commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture in Alabama — one of the few states that tests imported seafood for drugs like chloramphenicol, nitrofurans and malachite green, chemicals so toxic to humans that they’re banned in all food. “In some cases, between 40 and 50 percent of our tests will come out positive,” Sparks said. “That’s a disturbing number.”

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State tests in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Georgia show similar results, all targeting seafood with the worst record of contamination: shrimp, catfish, crabmeat and tilapia imported to the U.S. from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia — ending up in American restaurants and grocery stores in many cases, officials say.

“Unfortunately, consumers can’t tell if any of these compounds are in their seafood,” said Joe Basile, a seafood chemist for the Alabama Department of Agriculture. “You can’t smell it, can’t taste it, you can’t cook it out.”

Scientists say that over time, eating seafood contaminated with such chemicals could cause anemia, cancer and even birth defects.

The Food and Drug Administration says that the risks are long-term and not fully understood. While the FDA is responsible for keeping the nation’s food supply safe, TODAY’s investigation found that the FDA tests less than 2 percent of imported seafood.

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“I would certainly suggest that the FDA do more,” Sparks said.

‘Cat-and-mouse game’
Government tests show that U.S. seafood is free of these contaminants, but as far back as 2007, a congressional report found that “seafood imports remain especially problematic” and that the “FDA lacks sufficient resources and authority to ensure food safety.”

The FDA declined to speak with TODAY on camera, but said it is doing the best it can, targeting its testing on companies and countries that are repeat offenders and rejecting their products until they are proven safe. Yet the problem keeps happening: In fact, according to test results obtained by NBC News, this year alone 8 percent of the seafood the FDA tested from China was tainted, and 16 percent of seafood tested from Taiwan was tainted.

John Connelly, who runs a trade group representing the imported seafood industry, said, “Any unauthorized use of an antibiotic is inappropriate. The vast majority of seafood coming in does not exhibit any kind of problems.”

Connelly said most importers follow the rules, and that the problem is being overblown as a trade issue. “Unfortunately, there are bad actors in every industry,” he said.

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Federal law requires grocery stores to identify the country of origin of the seafood they sell, but in restaurants, it's a different story: Most states do not require them to tell patrons where the seafood they serve comes from.

Connelly said that “studies do not indicate that Americans are deeply interested in the source of their fish or other proteins.

“I think that consumers should feel comfortable that the FDA does a good job,” he added.

But some officials say that until more seafood is tested, consumers are at risk. “It is a cat-and-mouse game,” Joe Basile said. “They quite honestly don’t care about the health of United States citizens.”

And officials say it is not just a health issue. American fishermen who play by the rules say they’re losing their jobs because they can't compete with importers who cut corners and sell their tainted fish much cheaper in the U.S.

To read a statement from the FDA in response to TODAY’s investigation, click here .

 

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