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May 26, 2007

Food Safety This Saturday: Imported Monkfish That Are Really Puffer Fish Predictably Contain Deadly Neurotoxin

[By litbrit]

This morning, after my daily reading of food safety news (well, as much of a reading as I could stomach, at least), I shook my head for the umpteenth time and wondered aloud, What next?

You'd think I would have learned by now.   Anyway, I've highlighted the extra-disturbing parts for those who are in a hurry.  Here, read:

 

WASHINGTON -- A frozen product labeled monkfish distributed in three states is being recalled after two Chicago area people became ill after eating it, the importer announced Thursday.

Hong Chang Corporation of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., said it is recalling the product labeled as monkfish because it may contain tetrodotoxin, a potent toxin.   

While the frozen fish imported from China was labeled monkfish, the company said it is concerned that it may be pufferfish because this toxin is usually associated with certain types of pufferfish.  Eating foods containing tetrodotoxin can result in life-threatening illness or death and the toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing.

[...]

Consumers who have purchased this monkfish can return it to the place of purchase for a full refund. Care should be exercised in handling the fish as the tetrodotoxin may be present on the skin and flesh of the fish. Wash hands thoroughly after handling.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-562-309-0068.

People who may have consumed these products and have concerns are encouraged to contact their health care provider. Illnesses associated with consumption of these products should be reported to the nearest FDA district offices and to the local health authority.

 

This latest episode in a long, sorry series of toxic import sagas is shocking, yes, but the actual consequences of all profit-driven malfeasance--mislabeling cheaper and oftentimes poisonous ingredients, to name just one example--are hardly surprising.  If these frozen "monkfish" are actually puffer fish being handled as monkfish, there will be tetrodotoxin all over the place. The FDA pulls no punches in its press release (dated May 24); much of the  language is genuinely chilling:

FDA Warning on Mislabeled Monkfish Fish Believed to be Puffer Fish;
Contains Deadly Toxin

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to buy or   eat imported fish labeled as monkfish, which actually may be puffer fish, containing   a potentially deadly toxin called tetrodotoxin.  Eating puffer fish that contain this potent toxin can result in serious illness or death. [...]

Two people in the Chicago area became ill after consuming homemade soup containing   the fish. One was hospitalized due to severe illness. 

FDA's analysis of the fish confirmed the presence of potentially life-threatening   levels of tetrodotoxin.

Initial symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning occur 30 minutes to several hours   after food containing the toxin is consumed. Tetrotoxin poisoning is characterized   initially by tingling of the lips and tongue. Tingling of the face and extremities   and numbness follow. Subsequent symptoms may include headache, balance problems,   excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.  Consumers   experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical care and are encouraged   to report their illness to local health authorities.  In severe cases,   muscles can become paralyzed, and death may follow from respiratory muscle   paralysis. 

A total of 282 22-pound boxes labeled as monkfish were distributed to wholesalers   in Illinois, California and Hawaii beginning in September 2006.  These   fish were then sold to restaurants or sold in stores.  In one instance,   the retailer labeled the fish as "bok," the Korean name for puffer   fish. 

It's illegal in the U.S., with very few highly-restricted exceptions, but in other countries--Japan in particular--puffer fish are served as fugu, the inexplicably popular, wildly expensive, and potentially lethal sashimi dish the preparation and serving of which can only lawfully be undertaken by licensed Japanese fugu chefs. Because that mad treat can kill if it's not prepared absolutely correctly and with surgical precision:

Since 1958, only specially licensed chefs can prepare and sell fugu to the public. The fugu apprentice needs a two- or three-year apprenticeship before being allowed to take an official test. The test consists of a written test, a fish identification test, and a practical test of preparing fugu and then eating it. Only 30% of the applicants pass the test. This, of course, does not mean that 70% die from poisoning; rather, they made a small mistake in the long and complicated procedure of preparing the dish. Due to this rigorous examination process, it is generally safe to eat the sliced fugu sold in restaurants or markets.

Furthermore, most fugu sold nowadays comes from fish with only a small amount of toxin. Selling or serving the most toxic liver is illegal in Japan, but this "forbidden fruit" is still sometimes eaten by amateur cooks, often with fatal results. After the years following Japan's defeat in World War II, when several homeless people died from eating fugu organs that had been discarded into insecure trashcans, restaurants in Japan were required to store the poisonous inner organs in specially locked barrels that are later burned as hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste is an understatement.  About that tetrodotoxin:

Tetrodotoxin is an exceptionally lethal poison. Tetrodotoxin is approximately 1200 times deadlier than cyanide. In animal studies with mice, 8 μg tetrodotoxin per kilogram of body weight killed 50% of the mice (see also LD50). It is estimated that a single puffer has enough poison to kill 30 adult humans.

A couple of things, in my view, can't be said often enough:  One, we must do whatever it takes to properly fund and staff the FDA.  And that might mean reworking the entire structure of the regulatory powers and processes, creating a single formidable agency where several weaker ones existed before.  If such an organization could wield meaningful authority, and operate with an acceptable and legally-mandated level of transparency, I'd be all for it.  When you consider the volume of imported foodstuff that lands in the U.S. every day, remembering the various import alerts--some of them active over a decade--already in place against a number of countries, it is simply not logical to rely on, or even expect, a guarantee of poison-free dining when only 1% of imported foods and ingredients get inspected.

And two,  Americans want and need accurate information about the contents and origins of our food.  If a country has a recognized and recorded history of shipping poisoned, mislabeled, adulterated, rotten, or otherwise toxic food into the United States, American consumers deserve the right to decide if they're willing to take the risk, the right to make their concerns known at the grocery store, and the right to hold accountable those who would and do harm us, whether intentionally or as a consequence of institutionalized, profit-driven malfeasance.

It's important to note that Country Of Origin Labels (COOL) legislation is only one way to uphold the notion of accountability.  Indeed, it's rather obvious that trade agreements must be revisited, too:  strict compliance with U.S health and safety standards should, from this day forward, be a non-negotiable, loophole-free requirement for anyone wishing to export to America.  Further, said countries must vow to see to it that visiting U.S. inspectors are afforded full access to any and all physical plants and appropriate records in order to enforce this compliance; delays and denials would risk tangible penalties and threaten the country's trading privileges.

Despite its widespread support among Americans, demonstrated in poll after poll with 82% in favor of mandatory Country Of Origin Labels, the usual suspects--in other words, those powerful, deep-pocket-boasting interests that government unfortunately listens to--have fought COOL tooth and nail, and they've been largely successful.   Between 2002 and 2004, the American Farm Bureau Federation amassed $11,840,000 in lobbying expenses aimed at defeating COOL; Wal-Mart's lobbying expenditures toward the same end were $2,760,000. Predictably, all that money effort translated into a (so-far) three year delay of the labeling laws, with no implementation deadline set and none in sight--not unless consumers speak out.

You can contact members of the U.S. Senate here, and the House of Representatives here.

May 26, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

litbrit, while I would thank you for what would appear to be an excellently researched, well written, timely post, and I would point people to the History of the FDA--Introduction and the Food and Drug Administration - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that demonstrates that the FDA came about in the US due to some of these same issues of food adulterants approximately 130 years ago, and note that getting safe food in the United States took the hard fought efforts AND illnesses of many of parents, grandparents, great grand parents, and their parents,

Still,

I am told by the great "liberal" economists of our day that it is our moral duty to engage in "free" not "fair" trade around the world. That it is our moral duty to bring the developing countries up to our level AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE, even if that means bringing ourselves down to levels we have not seen in over 130 years.

And so litbrit, I do not congratulate you and thank you for this mornings post, but instead I ask you, why do you hate America, and why are you condemning the developing world to a slower rate of development in which they might only reach "our level" after say, 50 years and not 20 years, just so that you can preserve the hard fought gains of our ancestors and our food safety?

It is trivialities like your post and not tetrodotoxin that cause the indigestion of our modern day, leading, moral, liberal economists.

Posted by: jerry | May 26, 2007 8:28:42 AM

I'm with jerry. Let the free market decide if "mislabeled" monkfish that kills people should be imported. Don't make it a nanny state issue. Let the free consumers of the United States of America decide whether or not they want to chance getting poisonous fish in the name of cheaper fish. If a few people die in the process then their death rattle is only the sound of freedom ringing louder in America.


Posted by: ice weasel | May 26, 2007 10:47:47 AM

It is mystifying to me that this hasn't become more of a poltical issue. Imposition of food safety standards should indeed be non-negotiable as should COOL, if the Reppublicans really want campaign on toxin laced Red Chinese additives for everyone, good for them.

Posted by: AJ | May 26, 2007 11:05:23 AM

yu liberals are so negative--

here the chinese are sending us an *incredibly expensive delicacy* and we're getting it dirt cheap, and all you do is complain.

I mean, millionaires in Japan save up all year for one dinner of fugu. And here the Chinese are so generous that they're practically giving it to us, free along with some low-price monkfish.

I bet you'd even complain if they started giving us other rare and expensive commodities for free, like plutonium. (Do you know how much that stuff costs per ounce?)

Posted by: monk | May 26, 2007 11:14:32 AM

"I am told by the great "liberal" economists . . .

That's why we also need Ideology of Origin Label legislation . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | May 26, 2007 11:29:11 AM

dear litbrit...

you deserve a pulitzer prize for all of the excellent research and writing you have done on the recent issues about our food supply.
....i look forward to your articles each week.
i learn from them, and greatly appreciate them.
thank you.

Posted by: jacqueline klein | May 26, 2007 12:37:29 PM

I'm taken back to the hippy days again: Teach your children well...." to really read food labels closely.

There are so many reasons for active participation in buying locally produced food (reduced costs and polution from transportation; food safety; ability to survive a major disaster/flu pandemic, etc) that this should be a major goal of all progressives, for themselves and for their community.

If ever their were a national security reason for not relying on international trade for basic food requirements, the health and safety of our families should be front and center.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 26, 2007 12:55:40 PM

jim,

i agree wholeheartedly with you.

Posted by: jacqueline | May 26, 2007 1:11:01 PM

monk...

can we still use words like "plutonium" on the internet?

Posted by: jacqueline | May 26, 2007 1:28:09 PM

I am told by the great "liberal" economists of our day that it is our moral duty to engage in "free" not "fair" trade around the world. That it is our moral duty to bring the developing countries up to our level AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE, even if that means bringing ourselves down to levels we have not seen in over 130 years.

No one tells you this. What liberal economists actually tell you is harder to dismiss, so you go with the easy substitute.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 26, 2007 2:03:36 PM

No, actually that is exactly what they tell us.

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/05/alex_tabarrok_o.html

Posted by: jerry | May 26, 2007 3:25:00 PM

If anyone thinks it is possible they have contaminated fish and are too cheap to throw it out, soak the pieces of fish in a large volume of water for several hours to leach some of the poison out and don't eat too much at once.

And fugu is very expensive at fancy restaurants, but in some places in Japan they just buy it at a market and prepare it at home. This made me think twice about accepting some people's dinner invitations.

I will also point out that China is a vast country and you would expect most dangerous exports to come from China simply because that's the country the US imports the largest volume of goods from. Imports from other countries may be less safe when total volume is considered.

Here in Australia we generally don't have problems with unsafe Chinese imports because we have regulations in place to protect people. Here Chinese medicine does not count as medicine.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | May 26, 2007 10:04:30 PM

They should just relabel it "fugu" and raise the price to twenty-five bucks a pound.

Problem solved.

Posted by: urizon | May 26, 2007 10:48:54 PM

No, actually that is exactly what they tell us.

ex·act·ly (ĭg-zăkt'lē) adv. 1. In an exact manner; accurately.

That's from a real dictionary so you can stop using the Bizzaro version, jerry.

Posted by: James Killus | May 26, 2007 11:44:35 PM

Jerry, liberal economists think the welfare of the Chinese should be considered. The rest of what you said is bullshit.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 27, 2007 12:30:16 AM

tl;dr.

it's too bad too. this subject sounds interesting.

Posted by: chris | May 27, 2007 6:03:15 PM

No it's not. As Brad DeLong and Alex, et. al., note, we have a moral imperative to raise the condition of the Chinese.

I agree with that, but let's note that's a preference the economists are imposing on the rest of us, without the rest of us voting or being able to express our preferences.

The free traders argument against fair trade usually runs into some discussion of comparative advantage and how tariffs and trade agreements make trade inefficient. But inefficient compared to what measurement? It's inefficient compared to maximizing productivity.

So the economists in the argument above are saying we have a moral imperative to raise the rest of the world up to our standards in a manner that maximizes productivity, ie, as quickly as possible.

Any other issue, like how it might bring our quality of living down, or how it might make more losers than winners, or how slowing the change down to mitigate the harms to the losers are simply not in their equation.

The conversation above literally, exactly, not figuratively, makes the point I said, our liberal economists insist that we bring other economies up to our standards as quickly as possible.

Posted by: jerry | May 27, 2007 6:37:22 PM

If you don't think agree, instead of just disagreeing, please tell me what you think they are saying.

Posted by: jerry | May 27, 2007 9:47:35 PM

we have a moral imperative to raise the condition of the Chinese

This doesn't imply what you originally said, jerry.

So the economists in the argument above are saying we have a moral imperative to raise the rest of the world up to our standards in a manner that maximizes productivity, ie, as quickly as possible.

As quickly as possible given some reasonable constraints. They don't argue for total free trade, at all costs in the short term. They argue for more of it than the "fair traders." It's a matter of degree, not black and white, as you portray it.

Any other issue, like how it might bring our quality of living down, or how it might make more losers than winners, or how slowing the change down to mitigate the harms to the losers are simply not in their equation.

False.

Economists don't impose any policy on us, by the way.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 27, 2007 10:31:29 PM

Economists don't impose any policy on us, by the way.

Did you read Christopher Hayes article in the nation about how heterodox economists are kept from publishing and kept out of academia?

Since the well known liberal economists usually have worked, do work, or will work in the Administration formulating policy, or at the Fed Reserve Board, or consulting to the World Bank and the IMF, etc., well, I don't know how you can say they are not imposing their policies on us.

we have a moral imperative to raise the condition of the Chinese

What does it imply then? Am I using a bizarro world dictionary to define moral imperative?

As quickly as possible given some reasonable constraints. They don't argue for total free trade, at all costs in the short term. They argue for more of it than the "fair traders." It's a matter of degree, not black and white, as you portray it.

"Any other issue, like how it might bring our quality of living down, or how it might make more losers than winners, or how slowing the change down to mitigate the harms to the losers are simply not in their equation."

In what sense have the fair traders not asked for "reasonable constraints?" They ask for things like discussions of some guarantees towards environmental concerns, child labor issues, ability to unionize, etc. How are these issues not reasonable constraints?

Those aren't reasonable constraints to the free traders. You should read DeLong as well as Rodrik.

Since I think moral imperative is pretty clear (if unelected language) and since the free traders will not discuss the reasonable constraints and positive benefits of fair trade, I think an entirely reasonable interpretation is exactly as I have said, they say we have a moral necessity to bring the the developing world up to our levels as quickly as possible.

But, please do feel free to explain what moral imperative really means, and more importantly please do explain why what fair traders ask for is not considered a reasonable constraint by free trading liberal economists.

Seriously -- I would love to know and be educated.

Posted by: jerry | May 28, 2007 1:11:11 AM

Jerry, economists who oversee policy are appointed by and mostly answer to elected officials. They don't appoint themselves.

If you focus on the idea that not everything is in absolutes, you should be able to see what the moral imperative to help the Chinese implies. It's one moral imperative among others. We also have moral imperatives to help the folks here at home, and we balance competing imperatives according to whatever weighting we feel applies.

I didn't say fair traders aren't asking for reasonable constraints. Free traders and fair traders do have different ideas about what's best, but neither side is absolutist. Free traders don't really favor no protections at all, because it would be too disruptive in the short term. And fair traders don't really favor requiring exactly the same standards (wages, for example) in all countries.

Neither DeLong or Rodrik favors what you originally said, not even close.

free traders will not discuss the reasonable constraints and positive benefits of fair trade

Not true. They aren't absolutists.

they say we have a moral necessity to bring the the developing world up to our levels as quickly as possible

Again, this doesn't imply at all what you originally said, for the reason I already explained.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 28, 2007 2:17:48 AM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 6, 2007 5:00:03 AM

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