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As the Office of Catfish Inspection Programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) prepares to implement a new requirement for the inspection of farm-raised catfish, a responsibility that’s moving to the USDA from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Asian importers are resisting calls for a broad definition of just what counts as a “catfish” for inspection purposes.
The FSIS has the option of defining catfish either as only those fish that belong to the family Ictaluridae or more broadly as all fish belonging to the order siluriformes. The narrow definition would mean that about 70% of catfish consumed in the U.S. would be subject to inspection, while a broader definition would cover virtually all catfish sold in the U.S., including all imported catfish.
Supporters of the broader definition include the U.S. catfish industry and environmental and consumer groups, who frame it as a food safety issue. But representatives of Asian catfish exporters, particularly those from Vietnam, which brings in 52% of foreign catfish-like products sold in America, call it an unfair restriction of trade. Both sides made their case at two hearings held by FSIS in May. The comment period for the regulations closes June 24.
Joey Lowery, chair of the board of directors and recent past president of Catfish Farmers of America, notes that troubling levels of contamination have appeared in imported catfish. “There has been very limited inspection of these products going on so far, and they’ve uncovered multiple shipments of fish coming over here with chemicals banned for use in this country, like antibiotics and carcinogenic chemicals. That’s pretty scary, at such a low inspection rate, to find as many contaminated shipments as they have.”
In 2009, for example, Alabama called a temporary halt to the sale of imported Asian catfish after they had tested positive for fluoroquinolone antibiotics, which are banned for use in fish in the U.S. because of their potential risk to human health.
The U.S. catfish industry is ready to take on the added costs of inspection, and importers should be too, said Lowery. “Some plants have already made investments in anticipation of these regulations, to get up to speed, and I don’t think our processing sector is that far off from being able to comply,” he said.