Rash of catfish recalls caused by agency confusion

Published on
March 7, 2019

The rash of wild and farmed catfish recalls in the United States since the beginning of this year may be caused by confusion over which regulatory agency oversees catfish inspections.

More than a year after a controversial regulation shifting inspections of all siluriformes (catfish) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) went into effect, many catfish importers – and some domestic suppliers – remain unaware of the change, sources told SeafoodSource.

In addition, FSIS “discovered a lesser known species of siluriformes fish (sheat) in commerce without FSIS inspection, resulting in a recall,” Buck McKay, public affairs specialist with FSIS, told SeafoodSource. 

“Working with our federal partners at Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the FDA, FSIS identified additional recent shipments of this fish imported by other companies resulting in two additional recalls,” McKay said.

FSIS identified a fourth product in commerce while performing effectiveness checks for one of the recalls.   

As a result, five importers were forced to recall thousands of pounds of catfish that were not presented for re-inspection by FSIS. The agency did not find a food safety risk with the catfish.

For example, Bell, California-based H&T Seafood recalled more than 71,000 pounds of frozen wild sheat catfish from Vietnam in January. City of Industry, California-based Richwell Group, Inc. – doing business as Maxfield Seafood – recalled around 55,300 pounds of frozen sheat catfish products. McAllen Cold Storage in McAllen, Texas, recalled approximately 52,000 pounds of frozen basa fillets in late February. Lakewood, California-based Q's American Best Trading Inc. recalled around 1,000 pounds of catfish products from Vietnam in February. And Houston, Texas-based Fulton Seafood recalled more than 100,000 pounds of U.S. wild blue catfish, also in February.

“We have been distributing domestic wild caught catfish for several decades without issue. Eighteen months ago, the USDA mandated that wild-caught catfish be processed in a USDA-registered facility. Fulton Seafood was not notified of the change,” Joseph Massa, manager at Fulton, said in a statement provided to SeafoodSource.

Massa said the fish in question was “top-quality,” but that Fulton agreed to voluntarily recall the product to comply with the USDA regulation.

Other U.S. importers that recalled catfish this year did not return calls from SeafoodSource.

“This is a quintessential illustration of the confusion created by two separate agencies regulating seafood. When FDA regulates all of seafood, and has for somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years, then USDA begins regulating just one subset, these type of problems arise,” Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, told SeafoodSource.

NFI, the trade association for the U.S. seafood industry, fought against the change in agency regulation for years - a move supported by large farmed catfish producers in the Southern U.S.

“The Government Accountability Office’s reports on the USDA catfish program must have had a crystal ball when they warned of a fractured food safety system,” Gibbons said.

The USD 20 million (EUR 18 million) USDA program was criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 11 separate reports, The Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial last fall.

The GAO said the USDA catfish inspection program “unnecessary, wasteful, and based on faulty science,” according to the WSJ.

The program also resulted in Vietnam – the world’s largest producer of pangasius, part of the siluriformes catfish family – filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization, alleging unfair trade practices.

Currently, FSIS recognizes three foreign countries – Vietnam, China, and Thailand – as eligible to continue exporting Siluriformes products to the U.S.  

“These products are required to be produced in approved establishments within these eligible countries, and FSIS requires each shipment to undergo reinspection prior to entering commerce,” McKay said.  

While the “vast majority” of domestic and imported catfish are farmed, “we are seeing this wild caught siluriformes product – both imported and domestic – caught up in these regulatory questions,” Gibbons said.

While NFI supports “any effort” to return catfish regulation to FDA, there currently is no pending legislation that would allow for this, according to Gibbons.

Contributing Editor



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