chicken brains

Wary diners ask: Is fish from China?

After the FDA voices safety concerns about certain Chinese exports, some Americans are beginning to look more closely at restaurant selections.

By Ron Scherer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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A few weeks ago, restaurateur Martin Sheridan discovered his famed “hot and spicy” shrimp came from China.

The owner of the Ear Inn, the second-oldest tavern in New York, quickly asked his fish purveyor to “get them from anywhere but China.” Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that some Chinese seafood tested positive for banned substances.

Because of those findings, which led the FDA to restrict certain seafood from China, some Americans are beginning to look more closely at ocean selections in restaurants – from Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco to Cucina D’Angelo in Boca Raton, Fla., to the Ear Inn in New York. Diners are asking: Where did the tilapia special come from? Who caught the all-you-can-eat shrimp? Is the salmon farm-raised or wild?

It’s too early to know if Americans will permanently change their eating patterns because of concerns about Chinese seafood. But fisheries experts worry that more Americans will opt for barbecued beef or chicken instead of barbecued salmon.

This could reverse the trend of rising seafood consumption, up 11 percent since 2001. The average American now consumes 16.5 pounds of seafood per year, up from 14.8 pounds six years ago. Shrimp is the top choice, representing almost a quarter of the seafood that Americans eat.

And these days, most of America’s seafood arrives from foreign shores. According to the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade organization, 75 to 80 percent of fish is imported. In addition, some 40 percent of all seafood comes from domestic and overseas fish farms.

It’s those fish farms, particularly in China, that are raising the most eyebrows. Late last month, the FDA announced that Chinese-farmed eel, dace, basa, catfish, and shrimp must be tested and shown to be residue-free before they are allowed in the United States. The FDA found that samples of those fish had unacceptable levels of antibiotics, as well as drugs that are banned in the US.

And so now, awareness at local restaurants is growing – and fisheries experts worry that consumers are having more doubts about finned species.

The contamination concern “definitely adds to the confusion since we are so globally dependent on the seafood supply and don’t know the quality,” says Usha Varanasi, science and research director for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Her organization is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

She adds, “It’s important to identify the sources of fish and make sure we have good data and easily accessible information.”

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