PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's Health Ministry has started investigating claims by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that shrimp and prawns from Malaysia contained traces of banned antibiotics nitrofurans and chloramphenicol in shipments to the US, said the ministry's director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah.
"We are investigating it," said Datuk Hisham, adding that he did not want to speculate on the details yet.
"The agency has requested that the Malaysian government investigate the cause of the residue problem and develop a programme of short-term and long-term actions to prevent the export of violative shrimp from Malaysia to the United States," the FDA said in a statement that placed companies that process or ship shrimp and prawns from Peninsula Malaysia on "import alert" - meaning that their shipments could be detained at the port of entry without physical examination.
Sabah and Sarawak were excluded from the import alert, it added.
The notice said that from Oct 1, 2014 to Sept 30, 2015, the US FDA tested 138 samples of shrimp and prawns from peninsular Malaysia. In all, 45 samples or 32 per cent, contained residues of both substances, it said.
"For that reason, FDA is today placing companies processing and/or shipping shrimp and prawns from peninsular Malaysia on Import Alert. Import alerts such as this one are one way that the FDA protects US consumers and ensures that food is safe and wholesome," the agency added.
Malaysia will ask the FDA for details on its move, Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek said, adding that the export of frozen prawns from Malaysia to the United States was arranged on a "willing buyer, willing seller basis", or what he described as a "private arrangement".
He said the process did not involve approval or monitoring from any authority, including his ministry, the Ministry of Health (MOH) or Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
Following the incident, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery said the government had set up a special committee to control the export of prawns to the US, including tightening conditions at processing plants, which must be approved by MOH.
He added that his ministry would take control of issuing Certificate of Origin for prawns from the Chamber of Commerce.
On the same issue, Mr Ahmad Shabery's deputy Tajuddin Abdul Rahman urged consumers and importers not to panic over the FDA's alert until the ministry gets to the bottom of the matter.
"We will check the report by the US FDA and if we find it to be true, we will take necessary action to make sure exporters comply with the US government rules and standards," said Datuk Seri Tajuddin.
Banned in both Malaysia and the US for use on seafood farm operations, nitrofurans and chloramphenicol are antibiotics that help prevent disease in prawns and shrimps but are harmful for human consumption.
Malaysia is one of the top 10 exporters of prawns and shrimps to the US. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the country imported 8,311 tonnes of shrimp from Malaysia last year.
An aquaculture expert said there were various ways prawn farmers could use to combat diseases in shrimp and prawns but some treatments were more time consuming and not as effective as using nitrofurans and chloramphenicol.
The problem with using the two banned substances is that it is difficult to determine the correct required dosage, which differs according to the extent of the bacterial infection on the prawns, size of the ponds and other factors.
As such, some end up using too much of the two substances, and their residues subsequently turn up in the prawns during testing.
Selangor Fisheries Department director Azlisha Ab Aziz said the shrimp and prawn farming standards and requirements are constantly monitored in the country by multiple government agencies.
Given this, the import alert issued by the US FDA on the shrimp and prawns from Malaysia would be looked into from an interdepartmental approach, she added.
"We will collectively find out about the import alert and take the necessary measures," she said.
An industry source said the import alert was only for shrimp and prawns that were farmed and not those caught from the sea.
She said both nitrofurans and chloramphenicol were antibiotics used to combat various kinds of infections.
"The use of antibiotics in seafood farming is generally not allowed by major markets such as the United States, European Union and Japan," she said.
But, she added, major shrimp and prawn supplying countries in Asia such as India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, among others, had to depend on the use of these antibiotics to prevent diseases in farmed seafood.
"When such alert is made and it involves Malaysia, our authorities would generally investigate and find out who the suppliers of the consignments are and take the necessary measures," she said, adding it could also be a false alarm.
She said the Malaysian authorities also imposed stringent guidelines on what was permissible and what was not.
Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association secretary-general Paul Selvaraj urged the government to put emphasis on food safety.
"More frequent tests should be conducted by the government for the safety of the consumers," he said.
Similar to the FDA, Mr Selvaraj believes that the government should also ban unsafe food for the safety of Malaysian consumers.