BEIJING — A Chinese ban on shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast will continue indefinitely, according to a letter from the Chinese government, which raises new questions about U.S. health standards for shellfish.
The letter dashes the hopes of shellfish harvesters in Washington state who had hoped the ban would be lifted quickly after U.S. representatives submitted new information about safety standards along with test results.
The letter from China clarifies the testing procedure used by Chinese authorities who found high levels of paralytic shellfish poison in geoducks harvested in Alaska. PSP, a neurotoxin produced by a type of plankton, can accumulate in shellfish.
The letter, as translated, also asserts that a failure of Washington state officials to routinely test geoducks for arsenic “shows defects on regulating and monitoring the safety and hygiene for geoduck export to China.”
Before shellfish imports were shut down, Chinese officials reported finding unacceptable levels of arsenic in geoducks originating from Poverty Bay in South Puget Sound. Later sampling and testing by the Washington State Department of Health concluded that arsenic levels were safe — even according to Chinese standards. The tests did reveal elevated levels of arsenic in the skin of the giant clams, which state health officials said was typically discarded.
But the letter disputes that the skin is not eaten. “Chinese consumers eat the geoduck meat and skin and sometimes the digestive gland, too,” states the letter signed by Wang Xinwu of China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, or AQSIQ.
More information is needed before the Chinese government will consider lifting the import ban, perhaps keeping it in effect for a localized region, according to the letter. The Chinese official proposed sending an “expert team” to the U.S. to evaluate the regulatory system and negotiate an agreement for inspection, compliance and information exchange.
The Chinese letter tosses the issue back to the U.S., acknowledges a statement issued by the Office of Seafood Inspection, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. About 20 questions need to be answered from the U.S. side, including those dealing with testing and health-safety standards, according to the statement.
“Multiple state and federal agencies continue to be actively engaged in a coordinated effort to resolve this issue,” the NOAA statement says. “The states and federal agencies are working hard to answer China’s latest request for information so that U.S. companies can resume shipping these seafood products to China.”
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton acknowledged that the Chinese letter raises new challenges. Frequent testing for arsenic would be impractical, Dewey said, because it may take two weeks to get test results. Shipping live shellfish precludes that kind of delay.
Addressing arsenic found in the skin tissue is another issue, he said, particularly in wild geoducks taken from the bottom of Puget Sound, where they have accumulated the metal for many years. The question of safety needs to be resolved, he noted. The problem may not be the same when dealing with younger geoducks harvested from shellfish farms after a few years, he added.
Since early December, when the import ban was imposed, Taylor alone has lost nearly $1 million because of the restricted market, Dewey said. Washington Department of Natural Resources reported refunds to harvesters of more than $600,000.
Dewey and others involved in shellfish exports said they keep hoping the ban can be lifted pending further discussions.
“We are grateful for the fact that they’ve responded,” said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe. “We now have a feel for what their concerns are, and we are working with federal and state agencies to support their response.
“We have a lot of families who depend on the harvest, and it’s an important part of the tribal government as well,” he added. “We have sent trade missions to China. We just hope they make this a priority and understand that our product is extremely safe and that we conduct testing and protect water quality as much as any nation.”
Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health, said state and federal agencies are working together to gather information for the next response.
“We have a piece at the state level, and we are interpreting and reading to see what things we are involved in,” he said. “There are lots and lots of layers to this.”
Some questions regarding paralytic shellfish poison must be answered by state officials in Alaska. In early January, geoduck divers were not allowed to harvest in Southeast Alaska, where eight areas tested high for PSP.
China’s ban affects all bivalve shellfish — clams, oysters, mussels and scallops — in a “major fishing area” known as FAO 67, which consists of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Northern California.