The U.S. catfish industry is facing new rules and regulations in animal health and product safety as a result of legislation included in the 2008 farm bill.

Previously under the oversight of the Food and Drug Administration, catfish farmers and producers will soon find themselves regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The changes could be far-reaching, said Lucina Lampila, a seafood technology expert with the LSU AgCenter.

USDA requirements for meats are more stringent and far-reaching than FDA regulations for fish. And new procedures also will include producers as well as processors.

“For growers, the new regulations will require monitoring growing water as well as the transportation of live fish,” Lampila said. “For processors, requirements will include labels that include an inspection stamp, plant number, and safe handling instructions.”

Foreign facilities also are under scrutiny. Importers will have to demonstrate equivalent standards and evaluation methods.

Although including imported fish satisfies many domestic producers’ concerns, the biggest question regarding imports is the definition of the word “catfish.”

“All catfish raised and sold in the United States belong to the same animal family,” Lampila said. “Many types of imported fish, on the other hand, resemble catfish but belong to a larger group. That larger group encompasses 80 percent of imports.”

The new regulation, then, will base the definition on one group or the other. Producers and processors who want to voice their preference are welcome to let the regulators know, Lampila said. “Regulators are looking for public comment.”

The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service has scheduled two meetings. One will be in Washington, D.C., on May 24, and the other will be in Stoneville, Miss., on May 26. Anyone who wishes to make a public comment can register to speak at one of the meetings. Written comments also will be accepted until June 24.

Lampila encouraged producers and processors to read the proposed rules and comment – either in person or in writing. “It’s hard to change a law; it’s easier to have input on a proposed rule. Comments do have the power to influence how final regulations are written.”

Once established, the final rule will take effect in 90 days in four phases.

“It’s important that people involved in catfish raising and processing should read and comment on the proposed regulations,” Lampila said. “If they want all imported fish to comply with the same regulations, they have to let the regulators know.

“The environment is different. We are going to see changes.”