Elected officials, chefs and U.S. catfish farmers said at a public hearing recently that they support new USDA requirements for the inspection and regulation of all domestic and imported catfish sold in America

 “We are sick and tired of taking the risk on food safety for products that come from other countries and don’t meet our standards,” Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell said at the Capps Center, in Stoneville Miss.

“In case Washington hasn’t really heard the American public, we want Washington to stop sacrificing the safety of the American consumer in order to seek favor with any trading partner.”

Spell delivered his comments at the second of two public hearings conducted by the USDA this week to determine how the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should implement a new rule mandated by Congress to improve the inspection and regulation of catfish. USDA officials are debating whether to include all catfish, or only a single family of catfish.

FDA currently has jurisdiction for catfish regulation. The Government Accountability Office reported in April that FDA tested only one-tenth of one-percent of all seafood imported into the United States for banned drugs 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.

“We talk about obesity and nutrition and are constantly advising families to eat wholesome, healthy foods such as catfish,” said Dolores Fratesi, a Mississippi chef popular on the state’s television food programs. “Our government cannot then in good conscience turn around and allow stores and restaurants to sell food that has not been tested, analyzed and inspected properly. And that’s exactly what’s been happening until now.”

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 regulate catfish production and processing.

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 nine percent of all imported catfish would be subject to the comprehensive new catfish inspection and regulation rules, according to U.S. government data.

“Where does that leave the consumer?” said Wayne Branton, president of the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas. “Is the catfish on his or her plate among the percent that has been inspected, or is it among the percent that was just waved through with no inspection? There’s certainly no way to tell the difference after it’s been fried or grilled .”

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.

Seafood importers and some importing nations oppose the new safety standards.

“This rule does not require anything different of imported catfish than it does of our domestic catfish,” said Mississippi State Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. “How could anyone oppose a regulation that makes their product and their industry safer and boost consumer confidence?”