July 21/USA TODAY -- The Food and Drug Administration may loosen restrictions imposed last year on Chinese seafood processors following recent inspections of some firms in that country, a senior FDA official says.

The FDA restricted imports of five types of Chinese-raised fish in June 2007, saying many contained chemicals the U.S. does not allow for health reasons, such as long-term cancer risks.

Since then, China's government and seafood producers have stepped up testing and safety controls, and the percentage of shipments testing positive for the drugs has dropped from about 25% to less than 6%, says Don Kraemer, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Food Safety.

FDA inspectors in China this month audited 13 seafood processors, including some of China's biggest. They checked for good food-safety controls and the quality of inspections done by the Chinese government. Within weeks, the FDA expects to decide whether to free any of the plants from the import restrictions.

The restrictions affected Chinese firms shipping farm-raised shrimp, catfish, eel, basa, which is similar to catfish, and dace, a relative of carp. To pass into the U.S., the FDA required they test free of certain antibiotics and anti-fungals that Chinese farmers use to battle fish diseases.

Only one Chinese firm has been exempted from the testing because it proved to the FDA that it shipped clean fish. The 13 recently audited plants were selected by the Chinese government for FDA review.

If the FDA accepts the quality of Chinese inspection of the plants, it will rely more on Chinese inspections in granting future exemptions, Kraemer says. The seafood restrictions affected 500 Chinese companies, far more than the FDA can inspect, Kraemer says.

Exempting more companies would speed shipments and cut import costs from China, historically a major supplier of the U.S.'s shrimp and catfish.

Importers say China's government has clamped down on shoddy producers.

Last winter, Beaver Street Fisheries in Florida had a third of its shrimp imports from China test positive for the drugs. "I haven't had a positive test in months," says Beaver's import buyer Carlos Sanchez.

China's regulators have become very stringent, agrees Norbert Sporns, CEO of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries in Seattle. It produces tilapia in China. Before, he says they "turned a blind eye" to some lax producers.  

From the August 4, 2008, Prepared Foods e-Flash