What does it really mean when Americans are told by their government that a certain food is safe to eat? Not much, it turns out.

Do you want an example of commerce trumping food safety? Consider the homely catfish, which continues to be the focal point in a bizarre, international tug-of-war that pits business and trade against the wellbeing of U.S. citizens. So far, the scales have not tipped in the favor of consumers – not even close.

Few would disagree that the U.S. food supply needs proper inspections and safeguards to keep citizens from becoming ill. Following several recent, high-profile food recalls, food safety legislation – hailed by many as “landmark” -- passed the Senate this week.

An esoteric tax rule now threatens that bill’s passage in the House. However, even if the bill dies, it won’t erase the cynical posture that the Obama administration finds itself in regarding aquaculture inspections, both domestic and imported.

On one hand, the government claims to want the U.S. food supply to be safe and clean, that such protection is paramount. With the other, it shakes hands with Asian trade officials and those who do business with them, all the while knowing that those same foreign officials and businessmen thumb their noses at safety and continue unabated shipments of tainted product into our country.

On this issue, we are being taken for suckers.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Consider these facts:

  • In 2008, a paltry 2 percent of over 5 billion pounds of imported seafood was inspected. Inspection numbers have not improved since.
  • In 2006 alone, 49 shipments of Asian catfish were turned back as unfit for the U.S. markets. This occurred with less than 2 percent of imports being inspected. That same year, Chinese aquaculture imports topped 4.5 billion pounds (representing 80 percent of U.S. imports and up 1 billion pounds over 1995).
  • Among the things found in Asian aquaculture imports in the last decade: the antibiotic chloramphenicol and contaminants/carcinogens such as malachite green, fluoroquinolones, nitrofurans and gentian violet.
  • It is undeniable that Vietnamese catfish destined for the United States are being raised in river pens where run-off from agriculture, factory waste and human/livestock-generated sewage is dumped. (For more, see Feed costs, imports squeeze catfish producers and Eyes on Vietnamese catfish farming)

Despite that unsavory history, cheap Asian product continues to reach U.S. groceries and restaurants uninspected.

This is, of course, to the great detriment of the U.S. catfish industry, which must adhere to rules governing the use of antibiotics, contaminants and cleanliness. Not only are U.S. producers forced to incur greater costs than their foreign competitors, they have also been forced to watch their domestic market share shrink. The predictable result: since 2001, catfish acres in the Mississippi delta have decreased 43 percent, going from 113,000 acres to 64,000 acres in 2010.

For more, see U.S. catfish farmers push for USDA inspections

It should be noted that while the Obama administration has been willfully idle on the issue, it inherited the situation. The battle over inspections began years ago and – pushed by U.S. catfish producers and the Mid-South delegation -- culminated in the 2008 farm bill, which called for inspections to be taken from the ineffective FDA and given to the USDA. As it already has more robust inspection regimes set up for beef and pork, Congress instructed the USDA to do the same for aquaculture.

This was mandated to take place a mere 180 days after the bill passed. To the joy of businessmen and lobbyists willing to sell out the health of U.S. consumers, that deadline has been ignored.