After 14 years of eel farming, Zhang Xiuguo last week thought of calling it quits.
Exports of aquatic products in the coastal county of Fuqing, Fujian - which exported eel worth US$53.83 million in 2006 - have stuttered since last July, when "foreign press rumors about China's food safety escalated", Zhang, 44, said.
A recent New York Times report "sealed the fate of the crippled industry", said Liu Minglong, head of the city's eel association.
On December 15, the paper ran a 2,400-word piece, packed with Chinese translation in both audio and text, accusing the country of "farming fish in toxic waters", based on what it claimed were field interviews in the county.
"Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood" the report said.
Eel farmers, including Zhang, who read the Chinese version, said the accusation is "totally groundless".
"The major pollutants in eel breeding are nitrogen, phosphorus and excrements which are found naturally," explained Xie Hejie, deputy chief of Fuqing's environment protection bureau. "When you have more fish farms, the environmental pressure on water quality will certainly rise.
"But all these pollutants can be naturally degraded I wouldn't say that water becomes 'toxic' under these conditions."
Strict regulations since 2003 have made drug use illegal, added Zhang. The Fuqing eel association, established in 2006, is responsible for the purchase and delivery of approved drugs. The county produces about 30 percent of the country's eels.
"Whoever uses illegal drugs is bound to lose money. The ordinary fish farmer has neither the incentive nor the place to buy them," said Chen Renping, deputy head of the local marine and fisheries bureau.
The country's top fisheries watchdog agreed.
"Strict controls have been set on the aquatic raising environment and aquatic food quality. A vast majority of our aquatic products pass safety standards and consumers can set their minds at rest," Ding Xiaoming, an official with the fisheries bureau affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture, told China Daily.
Ding said some media reports are "irresponsible and mislead the public".
"It's common sense that fish cannot be raised in toxic water, as breeding and growth depend on good conditions including water source, quality, depth and the surrounding environment," Ding said.
The government has implemented four regulations on water quality for the fisheries industry, shutting down ponds that failed to meet water quality standards, and banning fishing in polluted regions.
The ministry tightly supervises fisheries inputs including drugs, and has strict controls on drug residues.
Inspection centers have been set up in 31 provinces and municipalities for aquatic food quality supervision, said Ding.
Special inspections of drug residues carried out by the ministry last year covered 20 major fisheries provinces and municipalities.
For the fourth straight year, more than 97 percent of aquatic products met standards during random sample tests.
Citing figures from the ministry and also the country's top food and product quality watchdog, Ding said that at least 95 percent of Chinese aquatic products met safety standards and up to 98 percent of fish exports passed inspections.
But Ding acknowledged that water in some regions was polluted and that some profit-driven fish farmers "misbehaved", using excessive or forbidden drugs in breeding.
"It will take us some time to correct their behavior," Ding said. "But we oppose any irresponsible and distorted reporting that misleads the public."
Ministry figures show that the total volume and value of the country's aquatic food exports during the first 11 months last year registered the lowest rise year-on-year since 1999. "Look at us. We did nothing wrong - but who is to pay for all the damage?" Zhang asked.
All About Fishing industry, Water pollution
January 3, 2008)