China bans West Coast shellfish after clams found tainted

SEATTLE - China has banned shellfish imports from the West Coast after recent shipments of geoduck clams were found tainted.

It's a move that now puts a multi-million dollar industry in our state at-risk.

"The impact has been significant. Obviously, we've gone a week now without shipping into China," said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms.

Taylor Shellfish Farms ship between 40 and 50,000 pounds of geoduck clams to China each month with a total $1.5 million in revenue, but now the company can't export any shellfish to China after officials there banned shipments from Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska.

Geoduck sell for $100 to $150 per pound in China. And in the region, most geoduck farmers are based in Puget Sound, where about 5 million pounds of wild geoduck are caught each year.

Chinese officials said two shipments of geoduck clams had high levels of arsenic and paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP. Washington state officials argue, however, that the shipments came from open areas in good standing with low test levels.

"I'm quite confident that what went there was safe and I'm interested to hear if there was a technical issue with the processing of the samples or what happened there," said Dewey.

Governor Jay Inslee sent a letter on Friday to the Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration asking for assistance and a speedy resolution. In the letter he wrote, "...this development in export uncertainty comes at a time of year that is critically important for harvest."

Inslee mentioned in the letter that state agencies are now working with federal regulators to ensure harvested shellfish are safe for consumption.

Dewey said there are questions about how China's government inspectors processed the samples, their testing methodology and how they extracted the toxins.

"It's important to get to the bottom of the issue as well. We definitely don't want to be selling products that could hurt anybody," said Dewey who also mentioned if the ban continues long enough it could impact jobs in our state.

The ban comes at the worst time for the shellfish industry because of the Chinese new year - it's when the US has its largest peak of product going into China.

"That's a huge holiday. Tremendous amount of sales," said Dewey. "People in China take a whole week off to celebrate Chinese New Year's and they do that with lavish meals and lots of Washington seafood and shellfish so (it's) really important to get this resolved as soon as possible."