Catfish: Etched in Stone or Up for Interpretation?
While President Bush and Congress scuffled over the bloated $290 billion Farm Bill and the 34 pages inadvertently missing from the copy Bush vetoed Wednesday, pangasius importers agonized over a measure in the bill authorizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect and grade domestic and imported catfish, particularly language in it leaving the definition of the term "catfish" up in the air.
Congress overrode Bush's veto after a 316-108 vote in the House Wednesday and a 82-13 vote in the Senate Thursday, enacting the Farm Bill, or at least most of it. Due to a printing gaffe, 34 pages on international food aid and trade were omitted from the version Bush vetoed - a mistake that may require Congress to deliver yet another copy of the bill to the White House.
Printing blunders aside, the bill contains a measure- pushed by the Catfish Farmers of America and its influential allies on Capitol Hill, including appropriations bigwig Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) - charging the USDA with inspecting catfish under the agency's Federal Meat Inspection Act; inspections will be mandatory.
The National Fisheries Institute and other food trade organizations lobbied to prevent it from encompassing all seafood, but the measure empowers the agriculture secretary to define catfish. Could the secretary include pangasius, the whiskered catfish cousin, in its definition of catfish? Possibly, though so far there's been no such talk on the Hill, says NFI VP of Government Relations Margaret Black.
Expanding the definition of catfish to include fish in the Pagasiidae family would be the height of hypocrisy, since a provision in the 2002 Farm Bill limits use of catfish to fish in the Ictaluridae family, to bar importers from marketing pangasius as catfish. As I've commented in the past, adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to the seafood-inspection process won't improve the safety of the U.S. seafood supply or public health.
It will, however, act as a trade barrier, impeding the growth of catfish, and potentially pangasius, imports at a time when the dollar is depreciating and the economy is struggling. China, Vietnam and other Asian seafood heavyweights will gladly shift their exports to the 27-member European Union and its nearly 500 million people, now the world's largest seafood market, if U.S. trade barriers are too steep. And then only the domestic catfish industry will benefit.
Editor's note: In observance of Memorial Day, SeafoodSource News will not be published on Monday. It will resume on Tuesday.