Friday,15 June,2012 10:26:21
In June 2008, the Federal Meat Inspection Act was extended to include catfish. An Office of Catfish Inspection Program was established within the USDA to fulfill this legal mandate, with the idea being that a science-based pond to plate inspection program would be developed that would ensure the safety of farmed catfish to the consumer. This would cover catfish produced anywhere in the world, including in the United States.
At the time that these regulatory changes were enacted, there was widespread commentary that the purpose of this was not as much to regulate the product in the U.S. but to force foreign importers to comply with a rigid set of U.S. standards. This suggested that the FDA was not doing an adequate job of safeguarding U.S. consumers and that much more regulation would. In 2010 the U.S. catfish farmers produced a little more than 200,000 metric tons of finished product. Pangasius production in Vietnam, probably the single largest competitor of U.S. farm-raised catfish, in 2010 was well over 1 million metric tons and growing. Their ability to produce a quality product for less money has put a lot of pressure on the domestic catfish producers. The FDA had been successfully lobbied to declare that pangasius, which are biologically considered to be catfish, were deemed for regulatory purposes not to be considered catfish. This theoretically could have made it harder for foreign farmers to sell their fish and force relabeling of the product, hopefully taking some of the pressure off of domestic catfish farmers. Unfortunately, it did not work out this way and pangasius processors were able to brand the fish successfully continuing to pressure the U.S. based catfish industry.
The shift to the USDA regulating the catfish industry would have caused more work for some of the U.S. growers but would have caused serious problems for many of the producers of catfish outside of U.S. This was an apparent attempt on the part of a small and vocal group to impact the manner in which foreign companies were being regulated to benefit a relatively small agribusiness. I want to make it clear that I know that this is an important source of income for a lot of people in those states that produce most of the catfish and that I am in no way taking a side here. U.S. catfish farmers produce a high quality product. The decline of the industry is a complex issue and the presence of competitive products is only part of the story.
There have been concerns voiced about the presence of antibiotic residues in product from Vietnam, and while these concerns are legitimate they should not make it seem that what is occurring will harm consumers that eat these fish. This is an exaggeration. This is such a small risk that it really should be of no consequence, at least from this perspective. It is important that farmers in all of those countries that sell product to the U.S. that could be tainted take steps to ensure that this is not the case. Many processing plants are compelled by law to test before buying product and in some cases are not supposed to legally buy fish that are testing positive for something that was banned by the country of consumption.
The recent effort to kill the Catfish Inspection Program and return the authority to the FDA is a responsible move on the part of the government. There is simply no need to create added red tape for imports. It will only add to the cost of these products to the consumer. As a nation, we already do not consume seafood at levels that are optimal for long-term health. We do not really need to create further negativity at the expense of the nation as a whole.
U.S. catfish farmers I’m sure understand that the best way for them to overcome the presence of competitive fish sources in the market is to market their product as a U.S. product with the benefits that come from that. Learning how to produce catfish outside the U.S. (which will continue to grow and will likely add more species in the years to come) using methods that do not require the use of antibiotics may be a hard lesson for some to learn. However, it is highly likely that the countries that export will get better at what they do and there will be fewer and fewer mistakes. The importance of the revenues to their economies is simply too great for this not to happen.
As I have said before, I believe that the responsibility for ensuring imported product quality falls on the shoulders of the importer. The importer should be making unannounced audits and ensure that the processing plants use product that has a high degree of reliability and that this reliability is backed up by traceability and testing. Screening for antibiotic residues can easily be done using relatively inexpensive ELISAs. Testing a fraction of a fraction of a sample chosen on the day of an audit is a meaningless gesture. Consistent screening by an approved in-house or certified outside lab is essential as are serious repercussions to those farmers that choose to ignore the rules. Those importers that do this bring significant added value to what their customers are buying.
There is plenty of room for everybody in the U.S. market. Supply and demand macroeconomic considerations will ultimately have a much greater impact on what we eat than political machinations.