Few foreign shipments inspected, even less rejected at U.S. ports

The hepatitis A outbreak is shining a light on the imported food industry, with scallops from the Philippines fingered as the likely source.

We spend some time researching food imports to find out how much contaminated foreign seafood is caught at U.S. ports.

Only about two percent of all foreign seafood is inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before it hits stores and restaurants, and of that two percent, just a fraction gets turns away.

The FDA said Wednesday it doesn’t know when the investigation will reach a conclusion confirming the hepatitis A source.

The FDA is on a constant lookout for tainted foreign shipments with a thorough inspection protocol, but with limited resources.

Still they managed to catch 50,000 suspect imports just over the past couple of years. We found only 5,000 of them were for foreign seafood.


Click to view the FDA’s data on: Imported seafood refusals | All refusals (2014-July 2016) | List of violation codes


Most of the shipments, which can range from mislabeled to downright tainted, were of shrimp and prawns, with tuna coming in second. Scallops didn’t even make the top 10.

Bad shipments have been weeded out quite recently.

seafood intercepted graphic

We tracked sample shipments between Sea Port, the company the state says distributed suspect scallops, and various Philippines scallops sources.

We cross-referenced that with the FDA’s own inspection records and found one of those Philippines companies was slapped with an FDA import refusal on an April 29 scallops shipment in what the FDA classified as “filthy” and “a substance unfit for food.”

While many companies are repeat offenders, the sample Philippines shipper connected to Sea Port had just that one violation in the FDA database over the past couple years.

So what got through and how?

Tracking that down is more than just a needle in a haystack. There’s a giant network of foreign food producers, middleman distributors, shipping and logistics, and varying degrees of state and federal oversight.

Hawaii’s agriculture and health departments defer all imported seafood inspection and food safety protocol to the FDA.

“I don’t think additional regulation is the solution. It’s really just making sure that what you buy, and by means of auditing, by means of visiting your supplier, by means of letters and certificates of analysis and this food safety plan, I think this is how we can really see how we increase the safety or at least assure the safety of the foods that we eat,” said food safety expert Aurora Saulo.

As far as the investigation into Hawaii’s hepatitis A outbreak, the FDA says they’re doing traceback and food sampling still to confirm the source.

Sea Port Products, the distributor of the suspect scallops, says there are various foods being considered as a source, but they have stopped distributing the supplier’s scallops for now.

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