Vietnam files WTO complaint against US, citing USDA inspections

Vietnam has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the United States, claiming the U.S. Department of Agriculture program targeting catfish inspections imposes illegal barriers to trade. The Southeast Asian nation is also seeking bilateral talks to resolve the issue.

Vietnam’s filing cites the newly implemented USDA inspection program, which imported pangasius now must pass through inspections performed by both the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

“Shipments of pangasius from Vietnam to the United States have long been unfairly targeted for trade restrictions by United States producers of like products,” the filing stated. “These exports by Vietnamese producers are now subject to laws, rules, administrative practices, and related actions of the United States that, without a sufficient scientific basis, are restricting the trade in this product, which is of substantial significance to the Vietnamese economy, and which also provides a substantial benefit to United States consumers as a healthy and affordable source of food and of protein.”

The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry, said it was paying close attention to the case and that the WTO’s involvement could have drastic implications on American exports to Vietnam.  John Connelly, NFI’s president, said the USDA program was designed solely to protect American catfish producers.

“The program is now poised to negatively impact significant U.S. agriculture exports to Vietnam. Cotton, wheat and other grains, pork, soybeans, beef, poultry, eggs and fruit, may end up in the crosshairs of retaliatory tariffs,” Connelly said.

The 2008 Farm Bill amended the U.S. Federal Meat Inspection Act to put monitoring of domestic catfish under the purview of the USDA. The 2014 Farm Bill amended the act further to include imported pangasius fish. To continue exporting fish into the U.S., countries were required to show documentation that their inspection system met U.S. standards.

The USDA officially took over control of the catfish inspection program last September after an 18-month transition period, resulting in a drastic slowdown in the amount of product Vietnamese processors sent to the U.S. last year.

Last month, the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers reported that while the country’s pangasius exports were up more than five percent through November 2017, exports to the U.S. were down nearly 10 percent and totaled USD 319.7 million (EUR 261.6 million).

VASEP also noted that while 62 companies were registered to export pangasius to the U.S., only 10 were shipping products. VASEP said just three of those businesses had “considerable export volume.”

As a result, even though the U.S. still serves as the top destination for Vietnamese producers, VASEP reported the country is shipping more product to China.

“The non-tariff barrier, that is the USDA catfish program, is designed solely to illegally benefit the catfish lobby while dragging down safe, legal, growing agriculture trade with Vietnam,” Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications for NFI.

This is not the first time Vietnam has sought WTO intervention with the US over seafood exports. Last month, it filed a complaint over anti-dumping regulations and determinations regarding fish fillets. In addition, the two nations have had disputes regarding shrimp. 

The USDA’s catfish inspection program may be on borrowed time. In its 2019 budget request, the USDA announced it wanted the Farm Bill authorizations repealed and that catfish inspections return under the sole auspices of the FDA. The USDA said it was one of several programs it sought to eliminate in order to reduce spending.


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