Where does science end, and politics begin? For international-trade practitioners, the question always seems to be lurking in the background, especially when it comes to fights over seafood. Take the current widespread concerns over perceived health risks associated with Chinese seafood products like shrimp and catfish. When it comes to these two particular Chinese exports, politics never seems far away. This is because the politically influential American shrimp and catfish industries complain bitterly that they can’t compete on the proverbial “level playing field” with the Asian seafood items, which, they insist, are both unsafe to eat and “unfairly” priced too low. Because the issues are complex and involved unrelated areas of expertise, when questions are raised in the press as to whether Chinese imports are safe, it’s often difficult for the public to know if there are perhaps other agendas in play that go beyond food safety — agendas involving financial interests in keeping Chinese seafood out of U.S. markets. For that matter, how do reporters know?
Usually, they don’t, really. Reporters who cover food safety inhabit different worlds in newsrooms from their colleagues who are assigned to international trade beats, who in turn don’t pretend much in-depth knowledge of public health issues. Consequently, the dots that might show the connections between the two different journalistic turfs often aren’t connected. Consider a Dec.15 article that raised questions about the safety of Chinese shrimp that was written by Wall Street Journal reporter Jane Zhang, who diligently covers the food-safety beat. Ms. Zhang’s report was the usual Journal quality: solid, accurate, and fair, at least as far as it went. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Asia and other Dow Jones publications.) But some digging beyond the headline offers a rare glimpse beyond narrow health issues, into a world where science meets the politics.
In the present case, the story begins with a high-powered Washington lawyer who, wearing his hat as a former high-ranking official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has raised serious questions about possible safety risks associated with Chinese shrimp and other food and drug products in the Journal and other news organizations. But while readers would not know it — except, perhaps, a very small handful who follow trade politics closely — the same lawyer’s firm has been raking in money that most Americans would consider serious, by lobbying to curtail the imports of Chinese shrimp into the U.S. A coincidence? Perhaps. But further digging suggests still other coincidences.
The lawyer is Benjamin England, a former senior FDA health-inspection expert who is special counsel to Jones Walker Waechter Poitevent Carrere & Denegre. Jones Walker is Louisiana’s largest law firm, and is also a lobby powerhouse with an office in Washington, D.C. The firm is well-known for its affiliation with Robert Livingston, a former Republican chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee — and now, a prominent lobbyist for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, an eight-state coalition of domestic shrimp producers that is at war with China and other Asian and Latin American shrimp-exporting countries. The SSA’s fight with the foreigners is being waged on both fronts: anti-dumping, and health warnings. Mr. England says that he does not have any involvement with the shrimp trade litigation, and there is no reason not to take his statement at face value. Still, the coincidences are worth examining as they illustrate how, in Washington, D.C., the worlds of science and politics seem never too far apart.
The Journal’s article last week reported that a Chinese shrimp exporter named Zhanjiang Guolian Aquatic Products Corp. had been placed on an “import alert” list by Canadian health authorities in October. (The company, based in Zhanjiang, in southern China’s Guangdong province, is usually referred to by its abbreviated name: Guolian.) Seems that in October, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency detected a banned antibiotic called nitrofuran, which can cause cancer if taken in sufficiently large doses, in a shipment of Guolian’s shrimp that had been routed through the U.S. When the Journal reporter inquired, a Guolian executive who is presently investigating the situation said he had no idea how this happened and suggested that the Canadian finding was mistaken. The article went on to compare Canada’s vigilance with the performance of U.S. officials at the FDA, who had given the Chinese company a clean bill of health. Because it passed FDA scrutiny after opening its premises to American inspectors, Guolian has been exempted from safety inspections that the FDA has been requiring of other exporters of suspect foreign seafood, including shrimp and catfish. Because of the exemption, Guolian has not only avoided the regulatory hassles in U.S. ports, but a $3,000-per-shipment inspection fee that other shippers are required to pay. The FDA pilot project allows exporters with clean records to avoid the regulatory hassles.
The Journal article reported that Mr. England is one of Guolian’s critics. The lawyer was quoted as saying that he thought that the Chinese shrimp exporter was getting “special treatment” because of what Mr. England contended had “more to do with its connections to the Chinese government.” There are other companies with equally good records on exporting safe seafood that don’t get the consideration that Guolian has been getting, Mr. England complained. The lawyer was identified as “a 17-year FDA veteran who now works as an import-export consultant.”
Here’s where the unreported coincidences begin. Jones Walker has been paid $360,000 since 2005 for lobbying for anti-dumping tariffs up to 100% on imports of Chinese shrimp. Through his separate consulting firm, Robert Livingston picked up an additional $320,000 in the past two years. Besides pressing the anti-dumping tariffs, the Southern Shrimp Alliance has been quite vocal in charging that Chinese shrimp is unsafe, and that the FDA should be far more aggressive in policing it. Mr. England has also been criticizing the FDA for laxity in food and drug inspections.
The Jones Walker website touts the fact that Mr. England was quoted in an October 8, 2007 article in USA Today, “Slow progress in protecting U.S. food supply,” that accused the FDA’s food safety regime of being flawed. In May, Mr. England had been quoted in another USA Today article on what the newspaper called “filthy residue,” referring to unsafe Chinese frozen shrimp and other foods. “The reasons some foods from China are refused entry into the USA are enough to scare anyone,” reporter Julie Schmit’s article began. Mr. England was quoted as saying that “nobody really knows if China is that much worse than anybody else.”
The former FDA official also has criticized the FDA in congressional testimony for laxity in health inspections. One of his most recent appearances came on September 25, at a hearing on food safety and contaminated seafood that was convened by Rep. Rosa De Lauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and the FDA. Another witness at that hearing was Chat Phillips, a catfish producer from Yazoo City, Miss., who is president of the Catfish Farmers of America, which has lobbied for anti-dumping tariffs on “basa” from Vietnam, which is how you say catfish in Vietnamese. The American catfish farmers have also complained about health risks associated with catfish from Asia, where they “flap around in Third World waters,” as the lobby group once put it a bit indelicately in one newspaper advertisement.
Mr. England, who was on vacation this week when I called his office, declines to identify specific clients who have an interest in the safety of foreign seafood, or may have reason to complain about Chinese shrimp exporter Guolian.”I realize that SSA is a client of the firm, however, I do not work on that account,” he said in an e-mail. “I represent many companies and associations, both foreign and domestic, who have issues with FDA, USDA, TTB, and Customs.” The lawyer adds that “nearly every client I represent has food safety concerns or tracks FDA.” He notes further that given his background as a senior FDA official, he is a logical person for reporters to call when questions arise about how the U.S. import system works.
Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, says that “the opinions expressed by Benjamin England to the media regarding the Food and Drug Administration are based on his 17 years experience at FDA and do not reflect the opinions of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. The SSA is not and never has been a client of Mr. England. He does not serve on Jones Walker’s shrimp account.”
Whatever possible seafood or other foreign food clients who Mr. England represents, the SSA certainly has no reason to be unhappy with the experience that Mr. England brings when it comes to talking about the FDA’s weaknesses.
In the anti-dumping case against Chinese shrimp brought by the Southern Shrimp Alliance — the one that resulted in tariffs on Chinese exporters ranging from 4- to 100% — one little Chinese shrimp exporter escaped with no tariffs: the same Guolian that Mr. England now complains about. Because it is not subject to the U.S. tariffs, Guolian has been able to export all the shrimp that the market will bear. While the numbers of how much shrimp the Chinese firm has been exporting to the U.S. are not on the available public record, overall, Chinese imports are on the rise. It is safe to say that this previously little shrimp exporter is now a jumbo one. For the U.S. shrimp industry, Guolian is the one that somehow got away. If the FDA would now be persuaded to crack down on Guolian, citing health reasons, that would plug an important anti-dumping loophole in the SSA’s case.
Like Mr. England, the SSA has not pulled its punches when criticizing the FDA for laxity, or suggesting that there are serious public health issues associated with foreign seafood. On Oct. 1, the SSA submitted a statement to FDA officials who are looking into food safety issues that said that “American seafood producers are subject to strenuous food safety controls that are not applied equally to foreign seafood producers.” The statement added: “Unfortunately, systemic differences in our imported food safety regime heighten consumers’ fears insofar as these deficiencies not only allow but affirmatively attract contaminated and dangerous imports into the U.S. market.”
In case the point might be missed, the SSA statement later made it unmistakable: “Americans cannot be sure what it is that they are eating,” the submission declared. “Farm-raised in crowded and dirty ponds, with almost no quality control, imported shrimp develop in poor sanitary conditions, in ponds with high feces concentrations, banned antibiotics, and toxic chemicals.”
If the FDA is lax these days, could be that things have gone downhill since Mr. England and his colleague Carl Nielsen — another former FDA official who now criticizes his former employer of being lax on suspect foreign seafood — retired. Besides becoming affiliated with Jones Walker, Mr. England has set up a consulting firm with Mr. Nielsen, FDAImports.com. The firm advises foreign clients how to cope with the FDA’s regulatory hurdles. Indeed, the two former officials ought to know a thing or two about that subject, since they “trained nearly every FDA import inspector, investigator, import program manager, and compliance officer in the effective use of Customs enforcement tools against products imported in the U.S. in violation of FDA requirements,” as they have so testified in their appearances on Capitol Hill.
Has shrimp exporter Guolian been exporting shrimp with unsafe substances in it? Given the findings of Canadian food-safety officials as reported in last week’s Journal article, the question demands answers that will turn upon the conclusions of subsequent investigations. Guolian’s Washington trade lawyer, Robert Gosselink, says that his client is “incredibly hygienic,” and has “no incentive to violate U.S. FDA regulations just to get a leg up on their competition.”
Indeed, Guolian’s website displays modern, state-of-the-art shrimp processing machinery, which certainly appears to be a far cry from the feces-infested, toxic foreign shrimp that the U.S. shrimp industry sees. One FDA official who recently inspected Guolian’s operation signed the firm’s guest notebook: “best shrimp factory.” Another wished the exporter “good luck,” the Guolian website notes.
How unsafe is Chinese shrimp, really? How good, or bad, is the FDA in fulfilling its obligations to protect the public health? While the questions can’t be answered definitively, there is one fact that never seems to be emphasized in the scary press accounts of how the FDA inspects, or does not inspect, Chinese shrimp: no American has yet been known to have become ill from eating it.