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How FDA’s Strategy Helps Ensure the Safety of Imported Seafood

Two image collage displaying an aerial shot of a boat at sea on the left, and a close up shot of a clutter of dead fish on the right.

By: Donald Prater, Acting Director of the Office of Food Policy and Response, Steven Bloodgood, Director of the Division of Seafood Safety in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Dan Solis, Assistant Commissioner for Import Operations

About 94% of the volume of seafood sold in the U.S. is imported from other countries. According to recent federal data, the U.S. imports seafood from more than 144 countries or territories and about 10,000 exporting food facilities, as well as aquaculture farms. Shrimp accounts for the greatest percentage of these imports, followed by salmon and tuna. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that imported foods meet the same safety standards as those produced by domestic farms and facilities. 

Donald Prater portrait
Donald Prater

Today, the FDA released a new report, “Activities for the Safety of Imported Seafood,” which outlines the comprehensive approach that the FDA is taking to help ensure the safety of imported seafood, augmenting existing oversight tools with smarter, more efficient technologies and processes.  

This action evolves from the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) which contains provisions to enhance imported food safety, and the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint. Both build on the agency’s commitment to ensure that consumers can have confidence in the safety of their foods no matter where in the world they are produced.

Four Goals for Imported Seafood

The new seafood report builds on the FDA’s Strategy for the Safety of Imported Food (Import Strategy) that describes the tools and authorities the FDA uses in the foreign food-production arena. The seafood report is shaped by the four goals introduced in the import strategy: 

  1. Help ensure that imported seafood meets U.S. safety standards by optimizing inspections, ensuring that processors and importers are meeting specific requirements for fish and fishery products, utilizing the results of reliable food safety audits, leveraging the oversight efforts of foreign regulators, and facilitating training and awareness of the FDA’s seafood safety requirements. 
  2. Strengthen the FDA’s surveillance at the border to intercept unsafe seafood. A key element of this work involves the use of predictive analytics for import screening and includes a pilot program using artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning, to improve the targeting of unsafe seafood at the border. 
  3. Respond rapidly and effectively to unsafe imported seafood. Actions the FDA is taking include the efforts of the Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation network, the Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan, the Prevention Strategies, and the Food Traceability Final Rule and communications with states utilizing networks such as the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Program.
  4. Improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the seafood import program by developing a global inventory of seafood facilities and aquaculture farms and developing new metrics to measure success.

The Complexity of the Global System

Steven Bloodgood
Steven Bloodgood

The wide range of known and emerging microbiological and chemical hazards that may impact seafood adds to the complexity of oversight. Since many hazards are introduced at the source – in growing areas, in aquaculture farms, and on fishing vessels – this presents a unique challenge and opportunity to prevent seafood contamination.  

The report notes that increases in global aquaculture production make oversight more complicated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that global aquaculture production almost doubled over the past decade. Potential hazards are unique because aquaculture is vulnerable to the impact of changing environmental conditions and stress factors that make fish more susceptible to diseases.  

The agency employs a range of tools to ensure the safety of imported seafood. These include inspections of foreign processing facilities, sampling of seafood offered for import, domestic surveillance sampling of imported products, inspections of seafood importers, and assessments of foreign country food safety programs. 

Dan Solis
Dan Solis

Most of the agency’s activities outlined in this report focus on prevention. However, the FDA places just as much importance on enhancing the speed, effectiveness, coordination, and communication of outbreak investigations if unsafe seafood enters the United States. 

The global food system is constantly evolving, including the production and delivery of imported seafood. The FDA is also evolving, implementing a new vision for the foods program that will help the agency to keep pace with the times, supporting improvement and innovation that will benefit consumers while helping to ensure that these advances are producing safe foods for U.S. consumers and around the world.


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