In early January, snow is falling on Joey Lowery’s Newport, Ark., catfish ponds and the forecast says more is coming.

“It’s cold and supposed to be getting even colder,” says the president of Catfish Farmers of America. “Everything has been business as usual during the holiday season. Producers are trying to market whatever crop is left in their ponds.”

They’re also awaiting a decision from the Obama administration on how vigorous inspection of imported seafood will be in the future. Many, like Lowery, believe a stepped-up inspection regime is vitally important for U.S. consumers. They insist the issue isn’t one of preventing Asian imports to the benefit of U.S. catfish producers but of protecting Americans.

(For more, see Catfish farmers: USDA delay harmful.)

Lowery points to the fact that in 2009, over 5 billion pounds of seafood were imported into the United States. Tasked with inspecting seafood imports, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) checked only 2 percent of those billions.

“Two percent? Who knows what got through?” asks an incredulous Lowery. “Everyone knows Asian shipments have been rejected for being tainted with all kinds of chemicals and antibiotics (for more, see Found in Asian seafood imports?). And we’re looking at 2 percent? If they catch it, they’ll turn back the shipments. But when you’re only inspecting 2 percent, plenty is getting through. That’s a major problem.”

After a lengthy period of U.S. catfish producer complaints and occasional rejections of Asian shipments (for more, see LDAF stops sale of mislabeled catfish), Southern politicians tried a new tactic with the writing of the latest farm bill. Under the new bill, responsibility for inspections of seafood was pulled from the FDA and given to the USDA. The USDA is already rigorously inspecting the poultry, beef and dairy industries. U.S. catfish producers welcome the same scrutiny.

“The legislative language in the 2008 farm bill leaves no ambiguity in its intent that all catfish, domestic and imported, meet the highest USDA standards — at least equal to the guarantees already accorded to beef and poultry,” wrote Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran in a letter to Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary, in an October letter. “Like you, we feel strongly about ensuring the health and safety of American consumers.”

Even with the new legislation and Congressional prodding, however, USDA hasn’t begun seafood inspections. After a study of the issue, USDA made a late-2009 recommendation to the Office of Budget and Management (OMB). But little is known beyond that. Even aquaculture industry leaders are largely in the dark on how the Obama administration is leaning.

“The process is with OMB, right now,” says Lowery. “That’s about all we know. If they take the allowed 45-day extension — and I assume they have — they have until sometime in February to make a decision. If they hadn’t taken that extension, actually, we should have heard something by the end of 2009.”

Much chatter has emerged concerning fears that Asian countries could retaliate against other U.S. commodities if USDA steps up aquaculture inspections.

“There’s no doubt about those fears,” says Lowery. “It’s hard for me to comment on that beyond saying there have been rumors for a while about Vietnam making some threats against importing U.S. beef if this catfish ruling goes through.”

Lowery is unmoved by the threat.

“The way I look at that is there’s no kind of trade deal that’s worth slackening up on safety standards of food coming into the United States. We’ll just have to see what happens, how the lawmakers handle this. However, anything less than what (catfish producers) are asking for is really detrimental to the country.”

Lowery points to imported seafood shipments found to contain all manner of contaminants. Along with the United States, European and Middle Eastern nations have also rejected Asian seafood shipments. More recently, Alabama authorities took a closer look at imported catfish and found fluoroquinolones, a family of potent, high-risk antibiotics.

“They’ve all stopped shipments because of sanitary issues and other things. That has happened at various times. Antibiotics and other things are in these imported fish. Some of these things they’re finding are drugs of last resort, so to speak. When you eat fish — or any kind of product — containing this, you build a resistance up to them. So, later on, if you need that drug for some sickness, it may not be very effective.”

How does Lowery address claims that U.S. catfish producers are attempting to ban the import of Asian fish?

“We’re not trying to ban anything,” he insists. “This isn’t a matter of hurting Asian producers. It’s a matter of protecting U.S. consumers.

“Don’t forget: there’s plenty of evidence that unsafe fish products are coming into this country. Of course, we’re focusing on catfish because it directly affects us.

“If they haven’t already, Americans are going to find out about” the lax inspection of seafood imports. “There is no doubt that if things continue down this same road, the perception of ‘unsafe product’ will bleed over into the domestic product. At that point, I think people will be afraid to eat any kind of catfish. That would be horrible — U.S. catfish producers would get a bad rap for something we didn’t do.

“It’s fine for Vietnam to ship product over here. But they must adhere to the same standards U.S. producers have to follow.

“I guarantee you this: if U.S. inspectors found some of the same things in domestic catfish that are currently tainting Asian imports, the domestic industry would be shut down. They’d shut us down before you could even turn around.”

For more on catfish, see Delta Farm Press: catfish.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com