China calls catfish program 'protectionism'

A ranking Chinese commerce official lashed out against a controversial catfish inspection program in the United States, calling it “protectionism” and warning that it could cause “retaliatory tariffs” that go beyond the seafood industry.

In an opinion column published in today's Wall Street Journal, Zhenhu Bian, president of the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal Byproducts, spoke against a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill that mandates the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspect all imported catfish. Supporters say this change is necessary to ensure product safety.

The problem, according to lawmakers, industry groups, and a number of other critics, is that such inspections are supposed to be in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Critics are pushing to put things back the way they were, because the USDA is not trained or equipped to handle catfish inspections, and the shift has already cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Other critics, including Bian, charge that the change was brought on by a special-interest group of domestic American catfish industry lobbyists, who are trying to erect an unofficial trade barrier to foreign imports.

“This provision has no basis in any scientific finding that catfish are a uniquely dangerous food or that the FDA was poorly regulating them,” he wrote. “Rather, a handful of lawmakers from catfish-producing states hoped to saddle foreign producers with hefty, and perhaps even prohibitive, compliance costs as we adjust to new safety regulations.”

Bian argued that the move is contrary to statements from U.S. officials that America is seeking more open markets with its trading partners.

“It is hard to see how America can do that when it will not lead the way by reducing its own barriers, or at least not putting new ones in place,” he wrote.

Bian noted that the change in U.S. regulation also clashes with the World Trade Organization (WTO), leaving the U.S. open to action by foreign trading partners.

Bian did not openly threaten the United States, but noted that right now, American products such as soy, corn, pork and beef are commonly exported to China.

“China and other countries welcome those foods,” he wrote. “But our openness should not be taken for granted. If Congress chooses to ignore the fact that 2008 farm bill violates WTO rules and does not repeal this provision, we reserve the right to ask our government to use all the tools available to it as a WTO member to challenge this unfair obstacle.“


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