Op-Ed: US seafood industry needs more honest discussion, less rhetoric

Last week, U.S. Senator John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) announced that through an appropriations measure he had secured an additional USD 3.1 million [EUR 2.7 million] in fiscal year 2019, an increase of 26 percent to FDA’s inspection of imported seafood. 

During his floor remarks on the measure, he characterized imported seafood as being “unfairly subsidized by their governments, facing virtually no environmental regulations, pumped full of illegal drugs, and very dangerous.” With due respect to Senator Kennedy, haven’t we heard this rhetoric for long enough? 

On the one hand, because Senator Kennedy has publicly announced that he is considering a run for Louisiana governor in 2019, it is understandable that he may want to throw a little red meat to Gulf shrimpers. On the other hand, this tired, old, protectionist rhetoric cloaked in food safety still has not addressed the primary problems: The Gulf shrimp industry has yet to produce the quality product they are capable of producing, and they have failed to properly market their product to convince consumers of why they should pay more for it.  

While it is absolutely correct that the U.S. inspects a small percentage of imported seafood, what is missed here is that our inspection program is a risk-based regime. In other words, inspections are focused on foods considered to be high-risk, on companies with a history of problems, or on product coming from regions where there are issues. 

Several years ago, I organized a meeting of domestic shrimpers and a group of companies who primarily import shrimp. The objective was partly to tone down the rhetoric in the media, but also perhaps to better understand our respective industries and how we might coordinate marketing efforts to promote overall U.S. shrimp consumption. 

Following this meeting, I was approached by several domestic producers who were almost apologetic for some of their rhetoric because they had no idea how many layers of inspection and food safety a large company like Mazzetta Company has in place. Internal audits, third-party audits, our own food inspectors in country, final inspection prior to export, and then, of course, routine FDA inspection upon entry. This was shocking to many domestic producers because they really have very little inspection as a domestic producer and certainly do not have the layered inspection regime that is standard for most large importers.

Speaking for Mazzetta Company, we work with some of the largest and finest seafood suppliers in the world. Because seafood is such a large part of the economies of most countries we work in, the investment is significantly larger than we find here in the United States. As I have said previously, most U.S. seafood processing facilities are less sophisticated and modernized than the ones we work with overseas, and yet some in the domestic industry still feel the need to demonize imported seafood and create consumer fear in order to promote their products. 

While we applaud Senator Kennedy’s efforts to increase FDA’s budget, the plain truth is that FDA only inspects roughly two percent of imported seafood because they consider seafood a “low risk” in terms of food safety. Pumping more money into FDA and hoping that translates into less imported seafood entering the country to out-compete domestic shrimp is simply foolish. Instead of FDA, perhaps Senator Kennedy may wish to consider pushing those federal dollars into seafood marketing at the Department of Commerce, which is what Gulf shrimpers really need. 

The other piece of recent news that has created some uncertainty in seafood is the Trump administration’s announcement that they are imposing 25 percent tariffs on Chinese seafood. While many of us view this as part of a larger negotiating tactic to bring the Chinese to the table on a trade agreement, one segment of our industry has been particularly vocal: Alaska producers who export product to China for processing and then reimport into the United States.

Politically speaking, it is no secret that Alaska has had the luxury of strong political representation in the U.S. Congress for decades. As a result, their representatives are heavily lobbying the Department of Commerce to walk back additional tariffs that are being considered on re-imported product from China. 

What makes these efforts so ironic is that the Alaska companies who engage in shipping into China, process there, and then re-export are some of the wealthiest companies in the U.S. seafood sector. Some companies, such as Trident and others, have made significant investments in land-based processing, but there are others whom we should surely be pressuring to make investments, create jobs, and process U.S. seafood here in the United States. These companies should also consider the carbon footprint they are creating to ship product out of the country and back.

As many of you may know, several years ago Mazzetta Company made the conscious decision to invest in domestic processing here in the United States. Admittedly, it is a difficult sector with a lot of complications, but ultimately it is the right thing to do – to process U.S. seafood, which is a public resource, right here in the United States.

Some of the tariff discussion has surely been tongue-in-cheek; like, for example, characterizing products from Canada as a national security interest, but if we are being honest, it is time to reject efforts of wealthy seafood companies that oppose tariffs because they don’t want to invest here in the United States. We as a U.S. seafood industry should also be working together to market seafood and increase overall consumption because any negative rhetoric regarding seafood ultimately hurts us all. 


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