Food safety experts fear secret elements of a hotly contested Pacific trade deal will further hamper U.S. government efforts to turn back bad seafood at the border, even as shrimp imported from Southeast Asian farms continue to turn up significant numbers of positive tests for banned antibiotics and dangerous bacteria.
“These trade agreements are used pretty much as a weapon to go after food safety standards,” said Patrick Woodall, of the food safety group Food and Water Watch. “We’re concerned it is creating a kind of secret venue to challenge U.S. food safety standards.”
Food safety experts have become increasingly vocal in recent days, with the House expected to vote Friday on legislation that would give President Obama broad authority to negotiate and sign the agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
At the heart of their concern is one of America’s fastest-growing delicacies: shrimp.
As shrimp has steadily grown in popularity, the U.S. food industry has become increasingly reliant on importers, many from Southeast Asia, to satisfy demand. Federal inspectors have struggled to keep up with the volume, looking at only 3.7 percent of the farmed seafood that arrives at American ports, and taking samples from less than 1 percent for testing at a Food and Drug Administration lab.
And yet, with even such a small sample the inspectors are finding problems: In 2014, inspectors turned away more than 100 shipments from Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, according to numbers provided the Food and Drug Administration. Advocacy groups say those numbers are on the rise.
Critics of the proposed trade agreement involving 11 Pacific Rim countries argue it could erode the rules on what shrimp can be turned away.
The chief concern, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has been leading the fight against the trade agreement, is that the trade deal could strengthen the ability of Asian shrimp importers to challenge U.S. restrictions as trade barriers, and leave decisions about what chemicals to ban to international arbitrators who preside over such challenges, instead of to U.S. inspectors. DeLauro believes a goal of the trade deal is to pursue “equivalence” or “harmonization” between the rules in such countries as Vietnam and Malaysia – where the use of antibiotics and other pesticides are less restrictive -- and those in the U.S., where antibiotics in shrimp are banned.
“It is a code for moving to the lowest common denominator,” DeLauro said. “Our standards will be lower. That is what the risk is. That is what will happen if this agreement goes into effect. And we will have no recourse to turning this around.”
U.S. trade officials strongly dispute DeLauro’s characterization of the trade deal, saying the term “harmonization” never appears in the deal. In fact, they said a goal of the agreement is to force importing countries to raise their standards. In a statement to ABC News, the spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative said the agreement being brokered “will help improve food safety in TPP countries by promoting the use of transparent and science based regulations.” They say the language clarifying that goal will be available for public review once the full agreement is drafted.
“It will also include tough new customs provisions… to help us combat illegal transshipment, including of seafood, and identify food safety risks before they get to our shores,” the statement said.
Potential Shrimp Risks
The risk of getting food poisoning from eating shrimp is relatively low. The FDA says only about 6 percent of all food-borne illness is linked to seafood, including raw shellfish. But food safety experts told ABC News they are sounding alarms about shrimp because of the persistent presence of antibiotics in the shrimp tested, both in government and private labs.
Even low levels of antibiotics in food could pose a public health issue, Woodall said, because their use fosters the spread of deadly bacteria are resistant to standard medical treatments.
Testing by Consumer Reports released last month found what the organization called significant numbers of samples containing banned antibiotics in farmed shrimp imported from Asia. More than 5 percent of some 200 samples they tested came back positive for banned antibiotics.
“Shrimp in this country isn’t supposed to be produced with any antibiotics, so the fact that we found these residues coming in suggests that practices are going on that mask the hygiene problems,” said Urvashi Rangan, who led the study for Consumer Reports. “We are in fact reducing the effectiveness of those antibiotics in the long term for [people], and for sick animals too, and that’s the problem.”
Further, the Consumer Reports study found evidence of vibrio in 30 percent of the shrimp they tested. The dangerous bacteria is most commonly seen in oysters, not shrimp, so Rangan said her team was surprised to find it. “The FDA doesn’t have any requirements for vibrio control in shrimp and yet the centers for disease control say that vibrio infections, in particular, are on the rise.”
“In fact,” she said, “it’s one of the few bacterial illnesses from food that is on the rise.”
FDA officials twice agreed to be interviewed by ABC News on the subject of imported shrimp, only to cancel at the last moment. Instead, the agency sent a statement noting that, “with 2.5 million metric tons of foreign seafood shipped to the U.S. every year, the FDA uses multiple tools to protect consumers.” Among those tools are: foreign assessments, where FDA inspectors visit shrimp farm sights in person; the use of high tech risk assessment tools that help them target the shipments from highest risk farms for testing; and the port inspections.
“Although raw shrimp can contain bacteria, fully cooking shrimp largely eliminates that risk,” the statement said.
Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which advocates in Washington on behalf of seafood importers, also disputed the significance of the Consumer Reports findings. He told ABC News that the consumer organization has a “blatantly protectionist” agenda to promote U.S.-caught shrimp, and that the organization has exaggerated the risks involved in farmed, imported shrimp. He expressed doubts about the reliability of the Consumer Reports tests.
“We have zero tolerance for any use of unapproved antibiotics in shrimp. Period,” Gibbons said. “But it is important to be clear that the antibiotic issue is not one of food safety. Consumers do not get sick from even the miniscule level of antibiotics alleged to have been found in the Consumer Reports case.”
Last month, on the heels of the Consumer Reports study, Wal-Mart announced it was pressing all of its meat and seafood suppliers to restrict the use of antibiotics and published a list of voluntary guidelines regarding acceptable veterinary drug administration, according to SeafoodSource.com, an industry publication.
The safety of imported shrimp is emerging as a new front in what has been a bare-knuckle battle over the trade agreement, pitting labor unions and some Democrats against the Obama administration – with both sides accusing the other of presenting a misleading picture of the deal.
U.S. trade officials have singled out opponents of the deal, with Obama directly criticizing Sen. Elizabeth Warren in April, saying "I love Elizabeth. We're allies on a whole host of issues, but she's wrong on this." The administration has also circulated to the media – including to ABC News -- a Washington Post fact-checker item accusing DeLauro of exaggerating the risk that the trade deal would unleash a flood of new shrimp imports on U.S. consumers, further overwhelming FDA inspectors.
Meanwhile, food safety advocates have accused U.S. trade officials of colluding with large corporate interests and lobbyists as the deal has been negotiated. And trade experts have said the administration is misleading the public with claims that the trade agreement would force Asian countries to increase regulation of their shrimp farms.
“That is simply a lie,” said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which is lobbying against the TPP. “The actual record of these trade agreements has been only a downward ratchet on food safety.”
The opportunities for charges and counter charges have helped along by the secrecy shrouding the trade talks. The draft text, believed to number in the thousands of pages, is being treated as a classified document – literally, a trade secret. In order to read the agreement, members of Congress have to descend to a secure basement conference room in the Capitol complex, a room typically used by intelligence committee members to review national security documents.
Obama himself addressed the question of secrecy in a video blog released by the White House, defending the approach as basic negotiating tactics, and promising to make the entire agreement public 60 days before it is put to a final vote.
“I think they're hiding things,” DeLauro said. “I think they just don't want the American public first of all-to know what's in the agreement.”
The House is expected to vote as early as this week to give President Obama authority to broker an agreement on the TPP. That would mean a final agreement would return to Congress for an up or down vote, but without the ability to alter or amend the details. The Senate has already voted to give Obama that authority.