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Experts: Something's Fishy with Texas' Seafood Imports

Fish is routinely held up as a healthy alternative to other meats. But some experts might urge you to rethink the catch-of-the-day,  because of what else might be lurking on the plate. 

The Texas Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs heard testimony this morning about the condition of the state’s seafood industry. The Catfish Institute's Jeff McCord testified that he was concerned about importing fish to Texas.

Most of the catfish found in restaurants is imported from China. McCord says China doesn’t have the same kind of regulations the U.S. does, so banned substances can easily enter the food supply. A group of chemicals called nitrofurans is on this list. Fish farmers use them to rid the water of certain microbes, but they’re mostly banned by the FDA. “It’s been shown to cause cancer,” McCord says, “and it also disrupts human cell reproduction.”

These and other chemicals have been found in testing sites in other Southern states (and resulted in a ban in imported catfish in Alabama), but Texas has not tested catfish in the same way. McCord advocates testing fish on the market here and moving forward accordingly.

McCord also suggests installing regulations to improve labeling. Over 80 percent of the catfish on Texas shelves is imported. McCord wants fish to be marked with country-of-origin labels. “Consumers don’t know what’s inside 99 percent of imports,” McCord says. “People who go to Texas restaurants now unknowingly exposed to Vietnamese and Asian catfish, or Pangasiussold as catfish, would at least know the nationality of the fish.”

Dr. Joan Holt says the U.S. has a trade deficit of $8 billion in imported fish, and less than two percent of this fish is inspected (a job that should fall to the FDA). Dr. Holt is from the UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and also testified before the committee. She says where the FDA is lacking, states have stepped up, as in Alabama.

Holt takes an approach that differs slightly from McCord’s. She says we can take steps to avoid relying on imports by growing the aquaculture industry in the state. “As populations increase and as we need more seafood it’s going have to come from aquaculture,” Holt says. “So are we going to continue to import all these fishes, aquacultured species, or are we going to produce them ourselves?”

“It costs more, believe it or not, to grow a fish in the US, than it takes to grow one in Vietnam, put it on a ship, and bring it to the US,” Holt says. She advocates taking advantage of the state’s coastline (the third largest in the country) and domestic methods of farming fish. “We can do this," she says. "We can produce our own seafood. We can produce safe seafood,” Holt says. “We’ve spent about 30 years looking at sustainable production of marine fish and that’s growing them in recirculating water, in closed systems, land-based, and using native species.”

The Texas Legislature may test the waters on additional seafood regulation in the 2013 legislative session.

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