Public health concerns can restrict individual liberty. Typhoid Mary lost her liberty and freedom of association due to a microbe she carried, even though she was in good health. Similarly, Chinese companies raising seafood safe for U.S. consumers are creating a public health crisis: microbes resistant to antibiotics.
“How Antibiotic-Tainted Seafood From China Ends Up on Your Table,” (BloombergBusinessweek, December 15, 2016), describes the traditional “sustainable” Chinese use of animal waste to feed fish. Since the beginning of agriculture, animal waste has fertilized crops (it’s the organic way!). But the addition of antibiotics to boost animal size and disease resistance shifts the microbe ecosystem in animal waste. Some microbes gain resistance to antibiotics, and are then flushed into Chinese fish ponds, adding antibiotic resistance to microbes in fish later shipped (or transshipped) to the U.S..
The individual fish are okay to eat, but the antibiotic microbes migrate from Chinese pigs to fish to U.S. consumers, ecosystems, and hospitals.
In “China tackles antimicrobial resistance,” (Science, Aug. 31, 2016), the costs and source of the problem reported:
According to a May report from the Wellcome Trust in London, antimicrobial resistance in China could cause 1 million premature deaths annually by 2050 and cost the country $20 trillion. Antibiotics are currently widely available without prescriptions in China for both human and livestock use. The country accounts for half the world’s annual antimicrobial drug consumption. “Antimicrobial resistance is a problem created by human behavior—largely through the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in health care, as well as in animal husbandry,”
The Science article reports the Chinese government is taking the problem seriously and taking steps:
As part of a national action plan unveiled on 26 August, the Chinese central government said that it would mobilize the efforts of 14 ministries and departments including health, food and drugs, and agriculture. By 2020, the government aims to develop new antimicrobials, make sales of the drugs by prescription only, ramp up surveillance of human and veterinary usage, and increase training and education for both medical professionals and consumers on their proper use.
However, political pronouncements may or may not lead to actual reforms. Economists focus on incentives (economics is mostly about incentives, the rest is commentary). So what incentives will the announced Chinese “national action plan” create? It’s unclear. The size and scope of the problems are discussed in detail in “How Antibiotic-Tainted Seafood From China Ends Up on Your Table“:
…Livestock pens are scattered among the thousands of seafood farms that form the heart of the [China’s] aquaculture industry, the largest in the world.
Beside one of those fish farms near Zhaoqing…a farmhand … hoses down the cement floor of a piggery where white and roan hogs sniff and snort. The dirty water from the pens flows into a metal pipe, which empties directly into a pond shared by dozens of geese. As the yellowish-brown water splashes from the pipe, tilapia flap and jump, hungry for an afternoon feeding.
Chinese agriculture has thrived for thousands of years on this kind of recycling—the nutrients that fatten the pigs and geese also feed the fish. But the introduction of antibiotics into animal feed has transformed ecological efficiency into a threat to global public health.
Antibiotics banned for the U.S. food industry and essential for world health have been overused in China’s “sustainable” animal waste to fish fertilizing system:
At another farm, in Jiangmen, a farmer scatters a scoop of grain to rouse her slumbering swine, penned on the edge of a pond with 20,000 Mandarin fish. The feed contains three kinds of antibiotics, including colistin, which in humans is considered an antibiotic of last resort. Colistin is banned for swine use in the U.S., but until November, when the Chinese government finally clamped down, it was used extensively in animal feed in China. Vials and containers for nine other antibiotics lie around the 20-sow piggery… Seven of those drugs have been deemed critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organization.
The Bloomberg article also reports that tens of millions of tons of Chinese fish are likely transhipped through Malaysia and other countries, relying on loose or fraudulent paperwork on country of origin, and banned Chinese seafood still makes it to the U.S.:
But antibiotic-contaminated seafood keeps turning up at U.S. ports, as well as in restaurants and grocery stores. That’s because the distribution networks that move the seafood around the world are often as murky as the waters in which the fish are raised.
See also “U.S. seafood import restriction presents opportunity and risk,” (Science, December 16, 2016), however these new NOAA regulations are related to mammal protection and bycatch, rather than fish farming and antibiotic abuse.
“New DNA results answer consumers’ demand for trust in seafood,” (Phys.org, March 15, 2016) reports:
Two-thirds (67 percent) of U.S. seafood consumers say they want to know that their fish can be traced back to a known and trusted source, with 58 percent saying they look to ecolabels as a trusted source of information. Globally, 55 percent doubt that the seafood they consume is what it says on the package. These findings are from the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) latest survey of more than 16,000 seafood consumers across 21 countries.
The article notes both that the U.S. is the world’s largest seafood importer, and that much of the imported seafood is mislabeled for consumers:
Oceana’s nationwide survey in 2013 found one-third (33 percent) of U.S. seafood samples genetically analyzed were mislabeled.
The Marine Stewardship Council documents seafood origin and sustainability for ocean-caught fish:
Brian Perkins, MSC Regional Director—Americas, said, “The MSC’s DNA results prove you can trust that seafood sold with the blue MSC ecolabel really is what the package says it is and can be traced from ocean to plate. Last month, the U.S. government announced proposed rules that would require tracking to combat illegal fishing and fraud. Many businesses are left wondering whether they’re selling seafood that was produced legally and sustainably. MSC certification means consumers and businesses can be confident that MSC ecolabeled fish has been caught legally and can be traced back to a sustainable source.”
The Marine Stewardship Council 2015 Annual Report has numerous references to China seafood certification:
The MSC’s program director in China, Dr An Yan, was named the most influential figure in the Chinese seafood industry, in a 2016 survey of hundreds of seafood executives in China. The number one spot went to Ivy Wang, chief China representative at the Atlantic Canada Business Network, for “putting Canadian lobster on so many Chinese plates” – 97% of Canadian lobster is MSC certified.
More focused on fish farming certification is the Aquaculture Stewardship Council: “ASC announces partnership for development in China” (September 14, 2016):
The agreement will accelerate the growth of the ASC programme in China. Tao Ran has been contracted to lead the strategy implementation and to expand the adoption of ASC farm standards. The firm’s aquaculture staff will also work seamlessly with the ASC team to promote the availability of ASC certified seafood for consumers within China, and in the many countries that buy aquaculture products from China.
This innovative partnership will allow ASC to seize the historical opportunity of the Chinese government’s policy for a “market-oriented mode” in economic development. The agreement includes a long-term strategy to support the development, improvement and adaptation of ASC standards and engage and assist ASC Chain of Custody (CoC) certified companies. The agency will play a key role in both building new partnerships and strengthening existing ties with the Chinese seafood industry, affiliated associations, NGOs and key government agencies…
Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “has the primary federal responsibility for safety of seafood products in the U.S.” and other federal agencies are involved, private seafood certification systems are a popular alternative. For details, see presentation “U.S. Aquaculture Regulations: A
Comparison with Seafood Certification Schemes,” (November 13, 2013), and FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 553: “Private standards and certification in fisheries and aquaculture” (FAO, 2011):
Private standards and related certification schemes are becoming significant features of international fish trade and marketing. They have emerged in areas where there is a perception that public regulatory frameworks are not achieving the desired outcomes, such as sustainability and responsible fisheries management. Their use is also becoming more common in efforts to ensure food safety, quality and environmental sustainability in the growing aquaculture industry.
Apart from U.S. regulatory or NGO certification advances, new research may address the global health problem of microbes gaining antibiotic resistance. In “Does this 25 year-old hold the key to winning the war against superbugs?,” (The Telegraph, September 25, 2016):
“We’ve discovered that [the polymers] actually target the bacteria and kill it in multiple ways,” says Lam, who leads a half-a-dozen-strong research team. “One method is by physically disrupting or breaking apart the cell wall of the bacteria. This creates a lot of stress on the bacteria and causes it to start killing itself.”
Her research, published this month in the prestigious journal, Nature Microbiology, has already been hailed by scientists as a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine.
Scope of public health danger is briefly (and breathlessly) outlined in a short video embedded in Telegraph article:
Superbugs, the drug-resistant infections, are set to kill over 10 million people across the world by 2050.
Debaters can address a major source of drug-resistant bacteria at their source in agriculture and aquaculture practices in China. New Chinese government regulations may or may not reform the industry. Restrictions on antibiotic use in Chinese fish farms exporting to the U.S. would have a more immediate economic impact. Improving US/China engagement on addressing overuse of antibiotics could save millions of lives over the coming decades.