Chinese geoduck ban creates industry turmoil

It was shocking to hear that China had banned imports of clams and oysters from most of the U.S. West Coast, This announcement came after Chinese health inspectors reported high levels of paralytic shellfish poison and arsenic in two shipments of geoducks coming into that country. (KUOW had the initial report.)

Photo: Washington Sea Grant
Photo: Washington Sea Grant

It turns out that one shipment of geoducks came from Poverty Bay near Federal Way in Puget Sound, and the other one came from Ketchikan, Alaska.

Washington state government as well as the state’s extensive shellfish industry pride themselves on a monitoring program designed to ensure that PSP levels for harvested geoducks remain well within safe limits. I frequently report PSP (“red tide”) closures when they occur on recreational beaches — and commercial shellfish are checked even more frequently.

The monitoring program for Washington state shellfish is recognized worldwide for its ability to keep unsafe shellfish off the market.

The initial memo (PDF 33 KB) from the Chinese government said inspectors had found levels of PSP at 30.2 mouse units per gram. Mouse units? I had never heard of such a measurement, although I know that live mice are often used in the monitoring tests. I learned that “mouse units” was an older standard of measurement, replaced by micrograms of toxin per 100 grams of shellfish tissue.

The use of mouse units was the first issue that threw everybody off. I received an explanation from Jerry Borchert of the state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, and I offered this explanation in a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription):

“The Dec. 3 letter imposing the shellfish embargo stated that paralytic shellfish poison was found in concentrations of 30.2 mouse-units per gram. Mouse-units are an older standard, based on the amount of poison it takes to kill a mouse. The more common measurement today is micrograms of toxin per 100 kilograms of shellfish tissue, Borchert said.

“‘We need to know what conversion factors they used,’ he said. ‘Based on the best information we have, which is sketchy, the levels were between 600 and 1,500 micrograms per 100 grams.’

“In contrast, reports on geoducks from the Poverty Bay tract were no greater than 62 micrograms between Sept. 26 and Oct. 24, according to a health investigation completed Friday. The most likely harvest date was found to be Oct. 5.

“Authorities will close an area when the toxin level reaches 80. In fact, the high toxin levels suggested by the Chinese memo might not have been reached in geoducks found anywhere in Puget Sound this year, Borchert said.”

You can read the report, “Investigation and Results Related to the Geoduck Shipment Linked to the Shellfish Import Ban Imposed by China” (PDF 209 KB).

Confusion over the toxin levels found by the Chinese inspectors has created a great deal of anxiety throughout state government and the shellfish industry in Washington state. Nobody wants to say that the Chinese made a mistake, especially when the only data available is a terse finding in a memo (PDF 33 KB) transmitted to U.S. authorities. In fact, everyone I have talked to has been careful not to say anything negative at all until the facts are all in.

The chance that the shellfish exported to China exceeded the international standard of 80 micrograms per 100 grams seems possible, given that samples sent to state officials reached 62. That could invoke a response, even though the action level of 80 is considered within a significant margin of safety. But if the Chinese inspectors are reporting toxin levels higher than 600, that raises other issues.

What about poaching? I think it would be hard to rule out the possibility that somebody illegally sold geoducks from another area where PSP levels were higher and said they were from Poverty Bay. Whether that could happen depends, at least in part, on how well officials are able to track the geoducks through the market.

John Weymer of the Puyallup Tribe told me that officials were able to track the geoducks in question back to a specific boat working in Poverty Bay. Since it was a harvest by the Puyallup Tribe, tribal inspectors were on hand to make sure that the harvested geoducks were accounted for until sold to an independent buyer, he said. There is no doubt, he added, that the geoducks sold from the bay in October met health standards.

Although numerous areas of Puget Sound showed toxin levels above 80 micrograms in some types of shellfish, I’m told that the number of areas that reached 600 to 1,500 in geoducks were rare, if that happened at all. Such a finding would create more doubt about the accuracy of the Chinese testing.

One of the things I wondered about was whether the Chinese could be acting in retaliation for ongoing U.S. actions regarding the safety of foods imported from China. Bans on Chinese chicken were imposed and then lifted, amid Chinese complaints to the World Trade Organization. Questions of food safety have become entangled in issues of fair trade between the two countries.

I’ve raised this question of a trade battle with several people. Most tell me that if this were a trade issue, the Chinese would have used the opportunity to make a political statement. Instead, the Chinese memo was limited in scope, although the financial impact to the Washington shellfish industry could be significant.

Some people are quietly speculating that the Chinese have taken this action to manipulate prices. If geoduck harvesting is shut down in Washington state, the price of wild geoducks from the U.S. will drop and markets will improve for Canadian and Mexican geoducks. I’m told that the Chinese can make more money operating in those countries, although I have been unable to verify that so far.

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