As part of the 2008 farm bill, Congress instructed the USDA to expand its inspections of meat and poultry products to catfish.
The inspections were supposed to begin within six months of the farm bill’s passage. U.S. catfish producers welcomed the expansion since it would make their product more attractive to U.S. consumers and would mean Asian imports would finally be properly inspected.
Now, nearly two years later, the inspections remain tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Catfish imports continue to move into U.S. markets with little scrutiny. A measure of the problem: In 2008, a paltry 2 percent of over 5 billion pounds of imported seafood was inspected.
The reason for the holdup is trade. For fear of upsetting Asian trading partners the U.S. Trade Representative office has held off issuing a rule on the inspections.
Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been pushing for the farm bill rule to be fully implemented. Reached in mid-May, staff say the senator “continues to stress the importance of food safety and urge that USDA inspect all catfish imports as the farm bill called for.”
In a recent release, the Mississippi-based Delta Council weighed in, saying, “Food safety equivalency standards must be implemented by USDA if the U.S. consumer is to expect the same level of quality control in catfish that consumers currently enjoy with beef, poultry, and pork.”
Further, Lester Myers, Delta Council Aquaculture Committee chairman, said, “Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring the inspection of our domestic catfish industry and foreign imports, but the (Obama) administration has been dragging its feet in implementing the final rules to support the law which Congress passed that we believe is due to a fear of trade retaliation by Asian countries with a track record of sending contaminated fish to the U.S.
“Why should the American consumer be able to get beef, poultry and pork at the marketplace, whether a restaurant or grocery store, that has been inspected by USDA, but farm-raised catfish grown in the United States and abroad doesn’t meet the same equivalency standards in terms of food safety?”
Myers continued: “The bottom line is that the Congress passed a law, the (Obama) administration is flatly refusing to implement the law due to pressure by the Washington lobby for foreign countries, and the food safety issues associated with these imported fish are being swept under the rug.”
Reached at his central Arkansas operation, Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America, agrees with Myers.
“Right now, we’re still waiting and trying to be patient,” said Lowery. “There are a lot of rumors about when the rule might come down. Things have been very hush-hush since it went into the inter-agency process. The rule will come out and when it does we’ll have to make sure the proper thing has been done.
“But when the ruling does come down it’s not over — the process will shift to a comment period. This is a food safety issue and, the way I see it, everyone is losing.”
As of mid-May, how is the catfish season progressing?
“I think sales have been decent,” said Lowery. “Plants have had good sales, the weather has been fairly good and we’re feeding now.”
Unfortunately feed costs remain high.
“Producers have their hands full because of that and potentially higher fuel costs,” said Lowery. “To survive, producers will have to be really good managers — nothing will be easy.
“So, even though prices for catfish are good the costs of inputs are higher, as well. That higher catfish price isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Producers are still not receiving enough to maintain operations. We need more money for our fish — that, or feed and input costs to come down.”
Could there be a boost for aquaculture if the oil spill in the Gulf hampers fishing?
“I think it could,” said Lowery. “There haven’t been a lot of folks commenting on it. But there may be some replacement of Gulf shrimp and oysters with farm-raised catfish. I wish hardship on no one, but if the spill means that seafood is inedible I hope consumers turn to our catfish.”