New catfish DNA test arrives as inspection debate intensifies

Published on
June 2, 2015

A new DNA test for catfish comes on the heels of a heated debate in U.S. Congress over inspections of imported catfish.

Baltimore, Md.-based InstantLabs is co-developing a new Ictalurid catfish species identification test as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In accordance with U.S. Farm Bill legislation, only members of the Ictaluridae family can be legally marketed as catfish in the U.S. market.

Still in the R&D phase, InstantLabs CEO Steve Guterman is optimistic that the rapid test — results are available in two hours instead of the current wait time of up to two weeks — will be commercially available by this fall.

“Because catfish has been written into the Farm Bill, it is much more high-profile [than other seafood species],” Guterman said. “The issue that it comes down to is, is imported catfish the same species that is being farmed in the U.S. or not? When you get fraud happening with seafood, someplace along the chain, someone has fraudulently changed the paper trail. You now no longer know anything about how it was farmed.”

Last week, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) urged Congress to add an amendment to the bill that repeals the catfish inspection program that first went on the books as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, and was later confirmed with the 2014 Farm Bill. The program takes responsibility from the FDA for inspecting catfish, and transfers it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“The real aim was to raise costs for Vietnamese exports and drive them from the U.S. market,” McCain said on the senate floor last week.

Proponents of the program, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), have argued the change is necessary to beef up inspection of a product to prevent contaminants from causing public health problems in the United States. Opponents, including McCain and Shaheen, have said there is no health threat, and that the program instead will serve as an unofficial trade barrier to block imported catfish and protect domestic catfish producers in states like Mississippi.

InstantLabs’ new test, which will be available to FDA inspectors, other government agencies and private companies such as seafood importers and distributors, is likely to increase catfish DNA testing. Last week, Sen. Cochran cited a lack of imported catfish inspections , noting the current FDA system allows only 2 percent of catfish imports to get inspected, and risks that Americans will get exposed to hazardous contaminants.

“Our whole goal with the Hunter® Real-Time PCR instrument is to be able to test things in a relatively short time period – in under two hours,” Guterman said. InstantLabs has already released rapid DNA assays for Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). It plans to release additional salmon assays this year.

The FDA had already developed the DNA testing kit for catfish, and was looking for a company to commercialize it, according to Guterman.

“They want it to be used out in the marketplace for inspectors and others for validation,” he said, expressing optimism that the USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also utilize the DNA test in the future.

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