WTOC Investigates: Is there something fishy about imported fish? - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

WTOC Investigates: Is there something fishy about imported fish?

(Source: WTOC) (Source: WTOC)

If you try to eat healthy, seafood is likely part of your regular diet, but where does that seafood come from? Is it raised in clean water and free of antibiotics and hormones?

In Georgia, it can oftentimes be a case of "buyer beware." If you ask Charlie Russo, there is nothing quite like fresh, local seafood. 

"We are lucky in Savannah, to have quality stuff right at our door," said Charlie Russo, Russo's Seafood. 

For 70 years, Russo's Seafood has been in business. Charlie Russo knows seafood - inside and out.

"I'm right on top of things as far as quality," he said. "We're not bringing anything in from overseas."

Russo says 99 percent of the seafood they sell to local restaurants and customers is local and fresh, but that's only 10 percent of the seafood sold in the Coastal Empire. The rest comes from overseas, through the Georgia Ports.

"I think everything coming into this country should be and probably is inspected properly. I don't know if anything can slip by," Russo said. 

Think again. Just ask retired fish inspector for 20 years with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Sandy Shepherd. 

"Compared to other ports in the country, very little gets looked at here in Savannah, in comparison," said Sandy Shepherd, Retired Georgia Fish Inspector, Dept. of Ag. Most people don't know this, but the Savannah Port is about the fifth or sixth largest port for seafood imports, so it's huge."

The Georgia Ports is one of the largest importers of seafood in the United States, and according to Inspector Shepherd, the FDA handles all of the inspections, and they don't have enough money or manpower to inspect every piece of seafood that comes in through these ports.

"That only happens about 1.5 percent of the time to the 90 percent of the seafood imported; very rarely happens, especially at the port here in Savannah," Shepherd said. 

Just four years ago, the FDA chief issued a call for more inspectors at the booming Port of Savannah, where the agency keeps a lookout for safety hazards, ranging from spoiled fish to counterfeit drugs. 

"Savannah was left out somewhere along the way."

Once seafood leaves the Ports, it is trucked inland to Atlanta, then shipped back to local food and wholesale distributors. Spending all that time on trucks, Shepherd says there is very little time with inspectors from the Department of Agriculture. 

"The state is understaffed, underpaid, underappreciated and most are under-trained, so they don't know what to look for," he said. 

The USDA checks grocery store seafood for country of origin, but Shepherd says they can be mislabeled. How do you know the fish on the menu is what you ordered, and isn't full of antibiotics? 

"On the menu, it may say Red Snapper, but you don't know if you are getting Red Snapper about 50 percent of the time," he said. 

"The FDA does do testing for antibiotics; they don't do enough. They do issue import alerts for different countries."

Alabama is one state where fish and seafood testing started a few years ago. 

"They will check for anti-body resistance and DNA species analysis to make sure it is the right species," Shepherd said. I just wish Georgia had the funding to do some of that. 

Does that mean you need to stop buying imported seafood? Sandy won't go that far...

"Our seafood is safe, so I wouldn't say it is pumped full of antibiotics, but there are issues here and there," he said. 

"I'm not knocking grocery stores. I go to them myself, but not to buy seafood," said Charlie Russo. 

Charlie and Sandy do recommend asking about the fish you buy, finding out where it came from, and looking for labels like Georgia Grown or Georgia Fresh, when ordering from a menu. 

"Ask them if it's fresh. If it's not fresh, I wouldn't deal with anything frozen; import stuff," Russo said, shaking his head. 

For more on FDA alerts and recalls of seafood, click here

For more information on improving seafood safety and foreign inspections, see the articles below. 
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