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Local group to Devant: Test imported tilapia
T&T imports 113 tonnes of tilapia yearly. And a large portion of the imported tilapia comes from China, where concerns have been raised by the US that some farmers are feeding the farm-raised fish faeces from chicken, pig and geese. In the last few months, the United States media have publicised and even warned consumers to be wary of consuming tilapia, as some farmers in China were feeding the fishes animal faeces.
Splashed on the Internet were headlines Tilapia raised on faeces hits US tables and Asian Seafood Raised on Pig Faeces Approved for US Consumers. Feeding fish animal feces makes them highly susceptible to bacterial infections like salmonella and E coli, said US researcher Michael Doyle, who has studied foodborne diseases in China.
Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said in a 2012 MSN News report that while there are some really good aquaculture ponds in Asia, many of these ponds use untreated chicken, pig and geese manure as the primary nutrition. “The manure is frequently contaminated with microbes like salmonella. In some places, like Thailand for example, they will just put the chickens over the pond and they (chickens) would just poop right in the pond.”
Now chairman of the Tilapia Task Force and the president of the Tilapia Growers’ Association Gerard Weekes is appealing for tests to be undertaken on the imported fish. He said the task force raised the issue with Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj twice, the last being in December, advising that the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri) undertake tests to allay their fears, but claimed no action has been taken.
“The facts are out there. The empirical evidence has to come from Cariri which is what we asked for in the first place. We don’t know if the fish is being reared in proper conditions outside. We know that the Chinese have been quite capable of rearing fish in ponds that are fed with animal faeces.” He said some of the fillets coming out of China and Indonesia are labelled “not for sale in the USA,” but were being sold elsewhere.
Maharaj sceptical about local tilapia group
Maharaj, meanwhile, is sceptical of the local tilapia group. He called on them to bring the evidence. “If they have evidence that the tilapia is coming into Trinidad are fed faeces, I encourage them to bring it forward. You cannot bring an Internet report which does not name people or suppliers and advance that as evidence. I cannot act on rumours.” In the last decade, Maharaj said, T&T has been importing tilapia from China and no one had complained of any illness or health problems.
Maharaj said if the task force could show otherwise, he was willing to work with them. “Failing that, I would not act.”
People consume 135 tonnes in T&T a year
People in T&T consume 135 tonnes of tilapia a year. T&T, Maharaj said, imports 113 tonnes of tilapia annually; China is a main supplier. Local tilapia farmers only produce 22 tonnes of the fish consumed annually in T&T. Maharaj said, however, “I have to be wary that they are not trying to eliminate the competition from Trinidad in order to monopolise the market. I think they have an agenda to vie in a very competitive environment. I don’t know if this is the way to go. They have to increase their efficiencies.”
Maharaj said at the last meeting with the group, the task force did not raise any issues about the imported tilapia. He said they only put forward a list of recommendations for the “enhancement” of the local fish industry. Maharaj said the imported fish in some shops sell for less than the locally reared ones. Some of the frozen fillets, Weeks said, are individually wrapped in plastic and sold in boxes at wholesale prices.
In some shops, the fish is retailed for $20 to $30 per pound depending on the grade. Fresh tilapia is sold at $10 per pound by local farmers to supermarkets, caterers, hoteliers and restaurants. At fish stalls, consumers pay between $12 to $15 per pound.
‘We are not trying to squeeze out importers’
Weekes said local farmers were not trying to squeeze out importers, who pay no duty and taxes on the imported fillets. He said all they wanted to do was ensure the public’s safety. Weekes said since 2011 the task force has been complaining about the matter.
Doyle: 50 per cent of Chinese tilapia raised on animal faeces
Doyle, meanwhile, estimated that roughly 50 per cent of Chinese tilapia were raised using animal faeces. China’s tilapia farms operate under intense pressure to slash costs and produce as much cheap tilapia as possible. Though America gets 82 per cent of tilapia from China, the Food and Drug Administration only inspects 2.7 per cent of the imported fish. In 2007, China signed a memorandum of understanding with the US, aimed at improving the safety of traded food and feed products.
A 2008 Congressional Research Service report on food and agricultural imports from China asserted that they have been moving aggressively to improve their food safety system and to close unsafe plants.
—reporting by Shaliza Hassanali