Hong Chang Corp. of Santa Fe Springs said Thursday that it was recalling frozen fish from China that might have been mislabeled and could contain puffer fish, which carries a potentially deadly toxin.
The seafood importer began a voluntary recall after reports that two Chicago-area people became ill after eating soup that contained the fish, according to a statement.
The frozen shipments were packed in 22-pound boxes that were sold to wholesalers in California, Illinois and Hawaii beginning in September. Each of the 282 boxes was labeled "Monk fish, gutted and head off, Product of China," the company said.
But the Food and Drug Administration confirmed Thursday that its tests of the fish had found potentially lethal amounts of tetrodotoxin, a substance usually associated with the skin and certain organs of the puffer fish.
"Clearly, we are concerned. We are taking it very seriously," said FDA spokeswoman Kathy McDermott.
The fish recall was the latest in a list of problem products from China, a leading exporter of food and food ingredients.
This year chemical-laced pet food ingredients from China have been blamed in the deaths of more than 4,000 cats and dogs in the U.S. and Canada. On Wednesday the FDA began monitoring Chinese toothpaste imports because tainted products were found outside the U.S.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Thursday that China had agreed to consider upgrading its food safety standards.
The puffer fish poison "is really one of the most toxic things that you can find in food," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It really illustrates the weakness in the U.S. program for overseeing imports."
China ships about $500 million worth of seafood to the U.S. through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone.
Hong Chang listed a telephone number that consumers could call. An employee who answered the phone Thursday referred calls to another number, where a woman who would identify herself only as Cindy answered. Cindy said her expertise was human resources, not the fish business, and she declined to identify any executives of the company.
Puffer fish, also known as fugu or blowfish, is a delicacy in Japan. Chefs must be licensed and usually undergo at least two years of training on how to safely remove toxic parts of the fish.
The FDA's "Bad Bug Book" describes tetrodotoxin as "one of the most violent intoxications from marine species." Symptoms begin as a numbness of the lips and tongue that can progress to paralysis.
"The victim, although completely paralyzed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death," the FDA book said.
The book noted the 1996 case of three California chefs who required emergency treatment after they shared fugu that had not been properly prepared, even though "the quantity eaten by each person was minimal."