USDA is holding a public hearing Thursday to determine how the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should implement a new rule mandated by Congress to improve the inspection of catfish.

The meeting will take place Thursday, May 26, 2011, from 9 a.m. to noon in the Charles Capps Center at the Delta Research and Extension Center of the Mississippi State University. The Capps Center is located at 82 Stoneville Road, Stoneville, Miss.

The public meeting is the second of two such meetings USDA is holding as part of the 120-day public comment period set to expire on June 24.

“We encourage all members and friends of Delta Council to attend and show their support for our catfish industry and the American consumer,” said Delta Council Vice President Diedre Barret of Belzoni, Miss., who is making comments on behalf of the regional development organization. “We also appreciate the fact that our representatives in Washington made a special effort on behalf of the American consumer to ensure that quality is the number one watchword for all catfish products.”

At the first meeting at FSIS headquarters in Washington, D.C., food safety groups, scientists and members of Congress urged USDA to enact stronger requirements for inspecting and regulating all domestic and imported catfish sold in America.

USDA officials are debating whether to include all catfish under the new guidelines or only one type of catfish.

“Because one-third of all catfish consumed in the U.S. is imported, it is important for consumer health and safety that we provide the necessary tools and resources to ensure these imports meet the same quality standards as domestic products,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. “The current inspection system for catfish does not meet that responsibility.”

The Government Accountability Office has issued several reports citing deficiencies in the FDA catfish inspection program, which currently has jurisdiction for catfish inspections.

In the most recent report released in April, GAO reported that FDA tested for banned drugs in only one-tenth of 1 percent of all seafood imported into the United States in 2009.

The report also found that FDA violated its own regulations and tested no catfish for banned drugs from 2006 to 2009, despite designating catfish as one of its highest priority imports for inspections.

The new regulation, mandated by Congress nearly three years ago, would shift responsibility for catfish regulation from FDA to USDA, which has much greater authority and capabilities to inspect and monitor catfish production and processing.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a leading consumer protection group, testified, “Consumers are looking for more protection than the current system is giving them. FSIS can be much more protective of consumers than the FDA.”

The most contentious issue is whether the USDA will inspect all domestic and imported catfish or only catfish related to the U.S.-grown catfish from the Ictaluridae family. If the narrower version of the law is imposed, only 9 percent of all imported catfish would be subject to the comprehensive new catfish inspection and regulation rules, according to U.S. government data.

“We are not asking imported catfish to be treated any differently than our own catfish,” said Joey Lowery, chairman of the board of the Catfish Farmers of America. “We want all catfish to be as safe as possible for the American consumer.”

Scientists and other aquaculture experts testified that foreign governments allow catfish farmers to use large numbers of antibiotics and other drugs that are banned in the United States. Health experts warn that the drugs pose long-term dangers to consumers because the drugs build up over time, preventing critical antibiotics from working when people contract life-threatening illnesses.

Carole Engle, director of the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, testified that Vietnamese farms she has visited raised catfish in “raceways” using untreated river water including “all wastes, whether from human sewage, farm runoff, or discharges from factories, slaughterhouses, and cities.”

“It is important that the USDA include all catfish – those raised in the U.S. and those imported – in this regulation,” said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. “American consumers need confidence that every catfish served in every restaurant and sold in every grocery store is safe to eat.”

Catfish importers argued against the inspection of all catfish and accused U.S. catfish farmers of trying to keep foreign fish out the American marketplace.

“We are not opposed to imports,” said Butch Wilson, president of the Catfish Farmers of America. “We only oppose unhealthy imports. If there is an outbreak of sickness from any catfish, consumption of all catfish will go down, regardless of its point of origin. Consumers won’t understand why some catfish were regulated and not others.”