“In the United States, producers and processors have worked diligently to ensure that farm-raised catfish is safe, wholesome, and is just plain good to eat,” Hugh Warren, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America, told the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Livestock and Horticulture.

“I cannot imagine why anyone would want to hide the origin of their product and deny the consumer an informed choice.”

"A number of folks have expressed some real reservations about enacting mandatory country of origin labeling regulations,” Subcommittee Chairman Robin Hayes, R-NC, said. "Based on today's testimony, it is very clear that there are still some real concerns from both the proponents and the opponents of COOL.”

The catfish industry, however, believes concerns about the implementation of COOL are, for the most part, unfounded.

“The implementation of COOL should prove a minor issue with relatively no additional cost in the processing and marketing of catfish,” Warren says. “For the most part, the catfish industry already meets the COOL requirements through the mandatory Food and Drug Administration’s Hazard Analysis Critical Central Point (HACCP) systems for food safety.

This HACCP plan requires processors of fish and fisheries products to identify hazards that are recognized with their products and help them formulate control strategies.

According to Warren, the preferred method of control is for the processing plant to have an annually updated document on file, identifying the farm and producer on a guaranty agreement form. This form certifies that fish shipped to the processor are hatched, raised, and harvested in the United States.

In addition, the Code of Federal Regulations, Food Labeling Regulations, April 1994, requires the name and place of business of manufacturer, packer or distributor of food to be identified on the label.

“By virtue of a processor being in the United States, the requirements for COOL in the United States have been met,” Warren says.

Many of the nation’s trading partners already require their own version of COOL. For example, the European Union has the European Commission Labeling Decision for Seafoods, which is a new labeling system for fish and fishery products.

The new rule, which has been in effect since January 2002, stipulates that the label contain information such as whether the product is “farmed,” “cultivated” or “caught in the wild,” the country where it was processed and the commercial name of the seafood species.

“In an official statement, the Commission reported that considering the wide variety of species supplied, the EU considers it necessary to provide consumers with at least the basic minimum of information on the characteristics of aquaculture products,” Warren says.

“Over the past two decades, the U.S. catfish industry has grown from a relatively unknown segment of the U.S. seafood industry to the nation’s largest aquaculture industry, accounting for over 70 percent by volume and over 60 percent by value of all U.S. aquaculture production of fish,” he says. “Because farm-raised catfish has become a widely accepted food item throughout much of the U.S., the demand for catfish should continue to increase as American consumers increasingly turn toward fish as part of a safe and nutritious diet.”

The 2002 farm bill contained language that will require retailers to provide COOL on fresh fruits and vegetables, red meats, seafood, and peanuts beginning on September 30, 2004. Until then, the program is voluntary.

The House version of the FY2004 agricultural appropriations bill includes a provision to delay implementation of the law for beef, lamb and pork for one year.

During House consideration of the appropriations bill, there was an attempt to remove this provision, but that amendment was defeated. The Senate has not yet completed their version of an agriculture appropriations bill.

The recent hearing was held in anticipation of the USDA publishing the proposed rule dictating how the industry and producers will have to comply with the COOL law when it becomes mandatory next year. Because of the concerns expressed by those industry members testifying at the recent hearing, Hayes is urging USDA to release its proposed regulations for country of origin labeling as soon as possible so as to give as much time as possible for the industry to properly review it and make comments to USDA.

Also testifying at the Oct. 1 hearing were representatives of the fruit, vegetable and peanut industries.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com