China May Ban the Import of US Shellfish
Analysts Fear Damages to Washington Economy
By Seth Leuck
Neighbors are tricky. Sometimes they borrow your hammer and don’t return it; sometimes they don’t cut their grass when they should and every once in a while they place a countrywide ban on your shellfish exports. According to the Food and Drug Administration, China is purportedly considering another large-scale agricultural ban on imports of US goods, potentially including shellfish.
A ban of this scale would have significant implications for the economy of Washington state and the Puget Sound. While this ban may be another jab in the seemingly endless rounds of politically motivated posturing, if it includes shellfish, the effects will be felt locally.
This potential ban is reminiscent of another ban placed by China in December of 2013, one which halted all imports of shellfish originating from the California to Alaska. The ban was placed after a single Washington geoduck was found to have high levels of inorganic arsenic and in a potentially unrelated issue two Alaskan clams were found to contain high amounts of the biotoxin, which causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.
China is the world’s leading consumer of shellfish and 90 percent of the geoducks grown in Washington are sold there. The shellfish market in Washington is worth $270 million annually. Our mascot and delicious friend the geoduck has been known to sell for $150 a pound, and is one of the main staples of Lunar New Year celebrations. The ban was estimated to have cost Washington state $600,000 a week and the Suquamish Tribe $20,000 a day. The ban hit tribal elders particularly hard as 40 percent of the money tribal divers receive goes to support them.
While another ban could result from similar concerns about food safety and shellfish quality it is important to recognize that the original ban was the result of only three contaminated shellfish. Three shellfish represent a miniscule fraction of U.S. to Chinese shellfish imports (it’s impractical to include that many zeros to the right of the decimal place in any newspaper). Despite this, it is notable that, previous to this ban, Washington state did not test its shellfish for arsenic content. The contaminated geoduck in question was found to have been sourced from a Tacoma farm near a former smelting factory, which could have potentially leached arsenic into the surrounding area. However after this incident U.S. health officials traveled to china to help resolve the issues. Part of this included establishing a monitoring program which showed the chinese government Taylor Shellfish Farms and others in washington state. were looking at inorganic arsenic levels. According to Bill Dewey, director of Public Affairs at Taylor Shellfish Farms, “none of the farmed geoduck has tested anywhere close to the Chinese action level.”
One of the most important economic drivers in the Puget Sound is the export of shellfish. Currently, the largest local shellfish exporter on the Puget Sound is Taylor Shellfish Farms. It has just pushed past the 100-year mark as a company, and is currently the largest shellfish exporter in North America. It employs almost 500 people and maintains over 11,000 acres of coast along Washington and British Columbia. As a company, which has a historical commitment to sustainably harvesting high quality shellfish, they have represented decades of sustainably based employment opportunities. When asked for a comment Bill Dewey said that “Things are pretty much back to business as usual with geoduck exports to China. After working intimately on the issue for a number of months I believe the Chinese government believed there was a legitimate public health concern.”
In relation to the potential ban in question the Ministry of Agriculture of the Peoples Republic of China has not, to date, answered my requests for additional information. Their website (english.agri.gov.cn), however, is highly educational. It has a section devoted to international cooperation. Under America and Oceania one can find a number of sentiments about joint cooperation. There are numerous references to the importance of international agricultural cooperation, intermittent with clear attempts at fostering cultural integration. See the large photograph of hotdogs floating on beds of rice and Zhi TieNiu head of the Tianjin meat association describing New Zealand sheep as “the new hottie in town” but these sentiment seems questionable in the face of China’s history of politically motivated import bans.
One may surmise that many Chinese agricultural bans have far less to do with the quality of the products, and more to do with the quality of American-Chinese relations. In 2010 China banned salmon imports from Norway immediately after Chinese political activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the norwegian based group. China also banned U..S beef imports for over a decade from a “fear of mad cow disease” despite the fact that according to the Center for Disease Control there have been only four cases in the U.S. in the last decade. In June of 2007 shortly after discussions on regulating the price of South Korean garlic imports fell apart China implemented a ban on all South Korean polyethylene products and mobile phones. With these types of bans being placed, one can guess that the quality of shellfish here in the northwest is most likely as high as it has ever been.
While it looks like our dear geoducks delicious self may end up on the Chinese chopping block, at least we can have a bit of faith that maybe it has less to do with how good it is and more to do with where it came from. Short of popping open Xi Jinping’s diary it is impossible to know when and where the next ban will strike, but it is safe to assume that if it includes shellfish we will be hearing about it here in Washington. In the meantime if you would like to support local companies such as Taylor Shellfish and Olympia Seafood Company you can find their information at www.taylorshellfishfarms.com and www.olympiaseafood.com.