CFA launches new attack on pangasius


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
July 21, 2010

The Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) on Thursday took to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to further its claims that imported catfish from China and pangasius — a catfish-like species farmed in Vietnam — pose a risk to consumers’ health.

Claiming that the imported fish are farmed in unsanitary conditions and with the aid of antibiotics and other substances banned in the United States, the catfish trade group enlisted Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) to bolster its stance that imported catfish “puts Americans’ health at risk.”

Stating that imported catfish is farmed and processed in unsanitary conditions and in environments that are much less controlled than those in the United States, Lincoln added that the risk of contamination in imported products is “twice as high” as domestic product.

CFA and Lincoln are calling for a measure in the 2008 Farm Bill to bypass numerous delays and “bureaucracy” and become effective as soon as possible. The measure would transfer the responsibility of inspecting catfish and pangasius imports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which proponents say has a tougher set of standards and inspection requirements than the FDA.

Because the USDA would require that any catfish or pangasius exporting countries have a safety and inspection program in place that is considered equivalent to the United States’ system, critics of the rule change say it would amount to a trade ban on the species. Sources say it might take several years for Vietnam to establish an equivalency agreement and that the action would have a serious impact on Vietnam’s economy and risk retaliatory measures.

The domestic catfish industry says food safety is its chief concern.

“From our point of view, this is a health and safety issue,” said CFA President Joey Lowery, himself a catfish farmer of 25 years, based in Arkansas. Most U.S. catfish is farmed in Southern states like Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. “We’re not just supporting this law because it imposed tougher standards, and we’re not asking imported catfish to be treated any differently than U.S. farmed catfish.”

The group came together to push a new report by Exponent Inc.’s Center for Chemical Regulation and Food Safety, which raises alarms about the potential long-term health risks of eating imported catfish.

“Eating contaminated imported fish could have serious long-term human health consequences, including longer-lasting illnesses due to antibiotic build-ups that leave people less responsive to antibiotic medications and an increase in drug-resistant pathogens that can be transmitted to humans via the food chain,” the report stated.

“Clearly we have science on our side,” said Sen. Lincoln, who is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Food & Water Watch lobbyist Tony Corbo added that the USDA program is “more preventive in nature” than the FDA’s, and called on the federal government to move the 2008 Farm Bill measure along. Corbo also backed the safety record of the U.S. industry, saying, “It’s not often that an industry comes to Congress and asks to be regulated more.”

CFA and other groups have been openly critical of the FDA for not inspecting enough seafood at U.S. ports of entry. The FDA, which is said to lack the funds and manpower to do a thorough job on imported seafood inspections, reportedly inspects only about 2 percent of seafood shipments that enter the country. “This is clearly unacceptable,” said Lincoln.

Opponents to the measure said the U.S. catfish industry’s tactics amount to protectionism. The National Fisheries Institute of McLean, Va., on Thursday vehemently criticized the new report as an “absurd exaggeration” and called Thursday’s press conference an “abuse of public trust using faux food safety scare” to further the CFA’s agenda to create barriers to trade.

“This campaign is more of the same from a group that does not mind abusing public trust in an effort to wipe out its competition,” NFI said in a press release. “To suggest that this report shows imported pangasius (or catfish for that matter) is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance in the U.S. is an absurd exaggeration. Antibiotics are used in red meat and poultry — products that, combined per capita, Americans eat nearly 200 pounds of annually. Americans eat 0.259 pounds of imported pangasius annually.”

Several prominent U.S. politicians have written letters urging Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, that the proposed agency shift would harm domestic industries as well. Several U.S. firms that import pangasius also employ workers who process and package value-added seafood products.

“The growth in pangasius imports has helped provide an affordable healthy protein for the American people and critical jobs for California longshoremen, teamsters, cold-storage owners, processors and distributors,” read a 12 May letter signed by six members of U.S. Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The trade war between the U.S. and overseas producers can be traced back several years. In 2002, the U.S. catfish industry lobbied the FDA to ensure that any catfish sold in the United States as catfish must be in the taxonomic family of Ictaluridae, the species (also known as channel catfish) produced by U.S. catfish farms and also farmed and imported from China.

U.S. catfish farmers also successfully petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce to impose tariffs between 36 and 64 percent on all pangasius imports and have also released a series of attack ads and online video clips. Its most recent efforts can be seen on the Web site,, which says the waters of the Mekong River, where the bulk of Vietnam’s pangasius are farmed, are “filthy.” The Exponent report, “Catfish Risk Profile,” can be downloaded there.

What’s more, in an about-face, the U.S. catfish industry, which claims imports have taken up to one-third of its market, two years ago urged for a reclassification of the fish, so that all channel catfish and pangasius be called “catfish” to place all of the similar products under one safety-standard and be inspected by one agency.

Lowery said that he expects some movement on the rule sometime next month, but couldn’t offer a concrete timetable for which the proposed regulations would become effective.

Pangasius prices are typically up to USD 1 per pound cheaper than U.S. catfish.

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