“The look on my face when we found this — it was a complete shocker,” said Jason Morton, Attar’s colleague at N.C.-based Appealing Products Inc.
Attar, Morton and another colleague at Appealing Products, Matthews Schwartz, came across the alarming revelation when they set out to validate a new formaldehyde test they developed for Bangladeshi clients who needed a cheap way to detect contaminated fish.
To see how their test worked, the team purchased domestic and imported fish from supermarkets around Raleigh, N.C., with the intent of purposefully contaminating them with formaldehyde and then verifying that their tests worked.
Instead, they found that about one in four fish was already contaminated with formaldehyde. The commonality between all the contaminated fish? They were imported from Asian countries, predominantly China and Vietnam.
Not all of the Asian fish were contaminated, but many were, Attar said.
Attar and Morton stopped short of accusing Asian fish companies of intentionally adding formaldehyde to fish to prevent spoilage, though it appears to be a common problem in Bangladesh, where formaldehyde might preserve fish when refrigerators or ice aren’t available. (Think of frogs preserved for dissection in a high school science lab.)
Attar and his team first uncovered the issue in February 2013, and then spent six months routinely testing samples, finding the same results. Their results were then verified by researchers at NC State.
Attar said the sampling was restricted to purchases from Raleigh, N.C., and might not reflect fish in supermarkets nationwide.
“But, empirically, this is what we found,” he added.
Formaldehyde is present in some fish at small, naturally occurring levels. But everything observed in the Asian fish found them contaminated with far higher than normal or acceptable levels, Attar said.
The team tested whether or not levels of formaldehyde increased in cuts of fish as they aged, but the levels remained the same. They also tested the same species harvested from both Chinese and U.S. companies, finding that the Chinese-caught fish contained formaldehyde while the U.S.-caught fish of the same species did not.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the U.S. imports approximately 91 percent of its seafood. China alone accounts for approximately 89 percent of global aquaculture production.
Appealing Products’ formaldehyde test costs approximately $1 per swab, which is applied to a cut of fish and turns purple in the presence of formaldehyde. The company has shipped 100,000 tests to Bangladesh, and anticipates orders from companies in other Asian countries. More information in the tests can be found atformaldehydetests.com.
Documented instances of intentional formaldehyde contamination of food have occurred in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.
Attar and Morton said that their evidence makes a strong case for improved testing on seafood imports in the U.S., especially from Asian countries.
“I cannot say that companies are adding formaldehyde to fish, but our findings are higher than what naturally occurs,” Morton said.