Letter: Protectionism muddies U.S. catfish industry

The following is a letter to the editor submitted to SeafoodSource by Matthew Fass, president of Maritime Products International of Newport News, Va.
The issues suggested in the recent story “Legislators, NGOs push catfish measure” are not simple, yet are often presented in a misleading way as a simple discussion about food safety.

I completely disagree with the picture as presented by [Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute] and do not think the facts as examined in their full context point to anything other than pure protectionism and an effort to limit competition in any possible way. I do not suggest that the domestic catfish industry does not care about safety. They do, as does any credible company in the global food industry. However, the idea that this is really all about food safety and “we are doing this for the consumer” is just not supported by the record, regardless of how many times this line is repeated. The only thing that will be done for the consumer by limiting competition is sticking it to them with higher prices and lower services.

From the moment pangasius first came on the scene in the U.S. from Vietnam (representing one of the first major trade items between the countries since the war), the domestic catfish industry fought it in every imaginable way. There was the almost immediate antidumping case — still in effect — which has absolutely nothing to do with food safety. Perhaps more revealing was an advertising campaign pushed several years ago with language, including “Never trust a fish with a foreign accent” and “These other guys probably couldn’t spell U.S. if they tried.”  There were even quotes referring to “agent orange” concerns — simply disgusting, completely inflammatory and baseless rhetoric that should offend the sensibilities. Things calmed down only slightly after the domestic industry successfully fought for legislation stating that only one family of fish (Ictaluradae) is defined as catfish in the United States. 

More recently, as Chinese catfish (Ictaluradae) has made solid inroads to customers across the country, we have seen almost a carbon copy with the anti-import campaign. This includes the same type of rhetoric falsely associating the imports with “sewage” and “garbage,” resulting in legislation in domestic-catfish producing states for restaurant menu labeling just for catfish that requires special country-of-origin stickers. This is all under the excuse of “food safety,” despite the fact that Chinese catfish represents one of the most scrutinized and tested seafood imports in the United States right now, routinely undergoing comprehensive lot-by-lot testing under the umbrella of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and showing extremely well from both a food-safety and customer satisfaction standpoint.

I would simply suggest that if this or any product, imported or domestic, truly represented a legitimate food-safety threat to consumers — the kind that one would think should exist for special stickers and warning labels and the constant campaign suggesting that the imports are harmful — the product should be banned for sale everywhere. Also, based on Mr. Barlow’s comments, you would think he would be passionately pushing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take over inspecting all aquaculture products, perhaps all seafood products. The suggestion that “we only care about food safety” is not an accurate picture, but there is no more effective a way to garner attention and special legislation, especially in today’s growing protectionist environment, than basing one’s argument on safety claims.

Does this mean that all things are perfect with Vietnam pangasius or Chinese catfish? They are not and all things are far from perfect in many places on some important food issues. One need look no further than recent events in this country, ranging from beef to chicken to peanut butter to spinach, to know this (much of which is under the USDA umbrella as well). In particular, there has been concern raised over antibiotic residue and this absolutely is an important issue, not just with catfish or Asia but an issue that the entire aquaculture industry needs to take on more directly and comprehensively going forward with discussions focused on proper, transparent and uniform global standards along with meaningful enforcement.

I would note that this is also a U.S. issue. A recent article month expressed concerns about whether the newest antibiotics recently approved for U.S. catfish production are being regulated and monitored appropriately. Yes, imagine that, there are antibiotics commonly used with domestic catfish production. If you listen to the rhetoric, you would think this only happens in Asia in those especially “dirty conditions” that require antibiotics.

Ultimately, this all comes down to protectionist politics — something not unique to the United States to be sure, but nevertheless very ugly when it rears its head. I am confident Mr. Barlow is extremely knowledgeable about food regulation and aware that the USDA is not necessarily a better or worse agency for food regulation than the FDA. It is simply a different agency and one that is set up quite differently than the FDA in certain ways — ways that have historically made it very difficult, even impossible at times, to import entire categories of items from some countries. Those with firsthand experience know that the difficulty does not exist necessarily because the USDA is uncovering some safety-violation overseas or imposing safety standards that cannot be met. Rather, the USDA is simply set up in a different way in how it operates overseas — a way that has led to non-tariff trade barriers and, at times, complete import blocks, some of which have led to serious and justified trade retaliation aimed at U.S. exports that end up hurting workers in many other U.S. industries. This seems like the last thing we need right now in this country.

The FDA, in fact, has extraordinary experience with seafood and even a proven track record with catfish revealed in how it effectively addressed some recent concerns specifically with antibiotic residue. It seems therefore almost absurd on its face to believe that carving out a single species of seafood, especially one in which the FDA has shown active and effective involvement, to move to a different agency with zero seafood experience is a beneficial move for food safety. Incidentally, it is projected (by the government’s own estimates) that this move will cost taxpayers tens of millions in a new regulatory structure.  Wow, terrific timing for those who think we may want to look for ways to more efficiently spend government dollars.

All of this said, I could not possibly agree more with Mr. Barlow on certain key issues. Product that is mislabeled — either by species or country of origin (either in an effort to evade duties or just to mislead consumers generally) — is absolutely intolerable and every effort should be made to combat these issues. This practice is indefensible and tarnishes our industry with each event. Our entire industry should not only embrace more efforts to combat these practices but should be proactive in working on solutions. I applaud the same recent example cited by Mr. Barlow busting an illegal import operation related to panagsius as well as a recent story he did not cite where it seems a U.S. company was repacking imported product and labeling as “Product of USA.” I also hope for better work enforcing economic fraud regarding net weight issues, something far too common with both imported and domestic production.

However, none of these issues are related to food-safety oversight with Vietnamese pangasius or Chinese catfish nor do they point toward the need to carve out certain species for a different agency.

At what point does an industry look in the mirror for the cause of some of its issues? I could relate endless firsthand stories of customers routinely shorted orders of domestic catfish because production simply is not available, at any price. The domestic catfish industry is one of few in the world that has seemingly maintained, at least by some, a “my way or the highway” attitude toward many customers and also one of the few showing contraction (farms moving to other crops or retired entirely) at a time when other species are expanding in sustainable ways. There is almost endless fighting it seems between farmers and processors, making it easy for each to point across the globe for “what must be our common foreign problems” rather than address the real issues looking at each other in the eye. How about “off-flavor” product and other specification problems that have often made imports a better option for customers? At what point is enough special assistance — often in the form of government money or special “buy American provisions” — enough?

At what point do we really cross the line — perhaps far over the line — in ways that in theory are meant to benefit (very inefficiently I would argue) a limited number of catfish operations, but in reality are economically harmful to many more segments in our economy? Right now, without question, we have some depressed industries in many sectors across our economy. Yet I believe it is hard to argue with the fact that every imported container directly benefits jobs all over the country, jobs that will not be replaced with fewer imports because the domestic production has shown to be limited and does not touch many sectors even if available. These jobs include workers with shipping, transportation (trucking and rail), ports, warehousing, distributors and a host of agencies that are related to the imports (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FDA, laboratories). Imports help provide a check on inflation and as the only real incentive for competition to truly continue to look for ways to improve products, something I would suggest has been badly needed with domestic catfish for many years.

Finally, what is particularly sad about all of this is the harm efforts like this actually do in much larger contexts. I assure you that when the United States opened trade with Vietnam only recently and then one of the first things heard by a Vietnamese farmer was this kind of rhetoric and protectionism from the vastly wealthier United States, it spoke volumes. Things are no different in China where it is quite easy for a Chinese farmer to understand exactly what is being said about their “disgusting” conditions. Yet, at the same time, they open their doors to any visitors ranging from government agencies to the most highly respected food inspection bodies in the world, all who report a rather different picture than domestic catfish lobbyists.

Again, this does not mean that all things are perfect in China or Vietnam or that food safety should be anything other than the top priority for our entire industry. However, the nice simple story being promulgated by the domestic catfish lobby is vastly different than the reality of the situation and the current push does nothing but harm consumers, harm the U.S. economy as a whole, and harm relations at many levels among people for the long term.

I do not pretend to have all of the answers regarding what the domestic catfish industry should do differently or better to survive and even grow in today’s global environment. However, I know it can be done and I know some are doing the right thing. I think I know what the answers are not, and the answers are not falsely pointing the finger at others in this kind of way as a solution to their issues.

Far too often, comments like Mr. Barlow’s and this kind of story in general make it to the media and receive no response. They are then adopted as “fact” by the media and general public, if for no other reason than a lack of response signals to some that it simply must be accurate.

The global seafood industry and defenders of free trade are partly to blame for this for the silence. It is time for more to speak up.

Matthew Fass
Maritime Products International
Newport News, Va.

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