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Chinese exporters seek to shed taint

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The company has had no problem with US inspections since it began exporting tilapia to America last year, says Ms. Wang, and sells its fish to Wal-mart, Ocean Park, and other leading retailers.

But "the majority of our American clients hoped for a third-party guarantee of the quality of our products," she says. "Our customers were asking for proof from a foreign agent."

Since Baiyang does 70 percent of its $20 million a year business with the US, those requests counted. "That is a 6 million RMB ($800,000) investment," says Ms. Wang, pointing forlornly to a German-made catfish processing machine standing silent at the head of a long stainless steel table where nobody is working. "Now it is idle. I have laid off 200 workers."

Though the FDA ruling allows shipments of catfish whose importers can prove they contain no drug residues, "the waiting time on the dock in America before inspection is already 40 days and it will now be two months," complains Ms. Wang. "We have to pay for cold storage all that time. It is too costly for us."

The new restrictions on US imports of farm-raised catfish, along with shrimp, eels, basa, and dace (related to carp) are only the latest chapter in a string of scandals that have rocked China's international reputation and drawn attention to the scale of its food sales to the United States.

The FDA said repeated testing of Chinese farm-raised seafood had found "continuing evidence that certain Chinese aquaculture products imported into the United States contain illegal substances" such as carcinogenic antimicrobial agents and residues of antibiotics not approved for use in US seafood.

Fish farmers here acknowledge that some of their peers do indeed use banned drugs to keep their schools healthy in often overcrowded cages, but Ms. Wang insists that "even if some small companies break the rules you have to look at the industry mainstream," which she says abides by US and Chinese regulations.

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