"It has to be taken care of in a certain fashion or else it could be unhealthy for you," says Alan.
That couldn't be more true, according to state officials who took us behind closed doors for their super sensitive quarterly testing of fish. These state chemists are on the hunt for banned drugs in the fluoroquinoline family of antibiotics. They say the fish typically comes from countries that have violated FDA rules before.
"They certainly don't have the same standards as we do," says Buddy Woodson. "Seems to be the Asian countries. Vietnam would be the leading country, China, Thailand, Taiwan."
On this day, they're testing basa, also known as Asia's version of catfish. They chop and blend until they reduce a big piece to just a tiny vial. Once the fish goes into a mass spectrometer, it takes several days to extract any detectable levels of the banned drugs. Now chemists in the state lab have found strong antibiotics like Cipro in fish destined for a restaurant near you. Cipro is so strong, it's the government's top choice in the event of a bioterror attack where mass amounts of people could be exposed to Anthrax.
"Waters are somewhat polluted and they feed antibiotics to fish to make them healthy," says Woodson.
You can look at the data and see most fish tested in recent years have some level of the banned antibiotics, but the FDA has set the safe tolerance standard at 5 parts per billion. Any detectable level lower than that is not considered a violation.
"To date we've tested 80 samples," says Woodson. "We've found 2 that were over that limit."
2 in 5 years, one just this year in February, had 14.8PPB. The other in 2007 had 16.27PPB. The state is only able to test once a quarter, just 4 times a year. That means some tainted fish is slipping through the cracks.
"If it is positive, comes up with too high of a level," says Woodson. "It is put in the evidence room for going to court."
The problem with these powerful antibiotics in fish is eating too much could deem the drugs useless when you really need them.
"When you get that infection that antibiotic will no longer work for you," says Dr. Molly Cumming. "We lose our defense."
Tennessee enacted the testing law to keep from becoming a dumping ground for illegal fish. According to the organization, fair warning, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas also test and have found banned drugs. Arkansas and Alabama have even found carcinogens in fish like crystal violet and malachite green. Currently, Tennessee does not test for cancer causing chemicals like these. A check of upcoming legislation shows about 20 bills aimed at regulating the sport of fishing, but none bolstering the law to test for carcinogens in the fish we eat.
"Obviously the state of Tennessee is putting forth a lot of effort," says Bob Tappan. "Maybe we're not at the forefront, but I think we're near the forefront in our efforts."
Tappan is Culinary Director at Sperry's, and says his restaurant goes to great lenghts to avoid the issue of tainted fish altogether.
"We don't purchase from anyone that we haven't been to their facilities to see how they process and handle things because it's that important to us," says Tappan.
In other words, Tappan says he doesn't buy any fish overseas. Which, from the looks of things, will keep this fish lover coming back. If you're concerned about this issue, in the grocery you can check the country of origin label on the back of any packaging of fish you buy. In the restaurant, ask the server where the fish came from. If they can't tell you, you may consider ordering something else.
Tuesday, November 15 2011, 10:51 PM CST
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