Free, fair trade may be a noble goal but, as U.S. catfish producers have found out, it's difficult to achieve. That's especially true when their own government is reluctant, or unable, to enforce trade laws already on the books.

In mid-November, President Bush is set to travel to Asia for an economic summit. Among his objectives is a new, permanent trade pact with Vietnam.

The negative implications of the pact are not lost on the U.S. catfish industry, which has been unable to gain much traction in a protracted trade scuffle with Vietnamese fish imports. In a last-ditch effort to exert pressure and influence on trade reps and politicians, The Catfish Institute recently called for a “Catfish Caucus” to be formed in the U.S. Congress.

At the same time, aquaculture leaders continue to point out the dangers faced by U.S. consumers with continuing Vietnamese and Chinese mislabeling and poor farming practices.

In late October, Delta Farm Press spoke with Jeff McCord, trade consultant with The Catfish Institute about these issues. Among his comments:

The dumping of Vietnamese fish into the U.S. market was supposed to have been addressed by Congress a couple of years ago. Are laws not being enforced properly?

“What's literally happening is catfish farmers in the Delta, Alabama and the Carolinas are about to be sacrificed on the altar of globalization. Multinational corporations like Boeing, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and others are using their power and money to push this Congress and the Bush administration into further trade agreements with communist China and Vietnam.

“Those countries are able to offer these companies workers for $5 per day and no environmental, health or labor standards. Or, if those standards (are on paper), they aren't enforced.

“This is the globalization of food. We're saying U.S. catfish farmers need to rally around The Catfish Institute and help us forge a ‘Catfish Caucus’ in Congress. That would help us stand up to corporate lobbyists and their political shills in, D.C.

“Farmers need to call and write their congressmen on this. They must demand the federal government enforce existing laws against banned chemicals and antibiotics in imported fish. Also, we must do a better job of interdicting mislabeled fish at our ports of entry. We must have more containers checked, more testing, more law enforcement looking at this imported fish. That's the federal government's job and it's been asleep at the switch for years.”

On risks to U.S. consumers…

“It's an unfortunate fact that the FDA only tests 2 percent of food and drug imports into the United States. That's appalling and has become a national security issue. As we all know, containers of goods from foreign countries are, at best, inadequately examined. And we're talking about our food supply!

“Your readers probably know the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have, within recent months, sent teams around to U.S. agricultural groups warning of possible introductions of biological or chemical agents into the food supply. But here the government is permitting millions of tons of fish — much of which we know is contaminated with carcinogens and banned antibiotics — into our nation that they aren't even taking a look at. It's bizarre and totally unacceptable.”

More on multinational corporations' role…

“Boeing wants to sell airplanes to Vietnam and China. Microsoft wants to set up sweatshops there. Wal-Mart wants to be able to import food and other products from them without the annoyance of having containers checked at our border.

“It's interesting that one of the corporate interests lobbying against better port security was Wal-Mart.

“A few years ago, Sam Walton stated Wal-Mart would sell only U.S. goods wherever and whenever possible. Now they're talking about importing food raised in Asia. And that's after they've let in garments and other products.

“These multinationals have so much power and they don't want their suppliers, their sweat shops in Asia, to be inconvenienced. They don't care about the 20,000 catfish-related jobs in the Mississippi Delta and the Carolinas.

“The Chinese channel catfish imported into the United States have been found to contain banned antibiotics and industrial dyes (used as a fish fungicide) known to be carcinogenic. Last year, when South Korea found the same banned antibiotics and malachite green in imported Chinese catfish, they put a stop to it. When they tried to enforce the ban, China retaliated through threats and moves against safe South Korean products.

On the connection between catfish and the garment industry…

“In (the Oct. 25) New York Times, there's an article on Vietnam. The article was initiated with the upcoming trade agreement in mind. But, interestingly, the article states that the Vietnamese are upset with anti-dumping duties on basa. And they're warning the United States that could lead them to retaliate and close American-owned factories making garments in Vietnam.

“One of the issues in this Vietnamese free trade agreement the Bush administration and Congress have been pushing at the behest of the multinational corporations has been further exports of U.S. textile jobs. So far, no one in Congress seems willing to stand up to these corporate lobbyists.

“We want to fix that by forming a Catfish Caucus and try to get congressmen from (catfish-producing) states. Those would include those from Arkansas who are, obviously, under heavy Wal-Mart pressure. We want all of them to stand up for U.S. catfish farmers and the idea that U.S. consumers should know what kind of fish they're eating in restaurants. Consumers should feel safe eating that fish.

“We just need the existing laws to be vigorously enforced both on the consumer protection side and on customs/interdiction. If that was happening, we wouldn't have the current problems.

“It's no secret the multinational corporations are running the show in Washington, D.C. Farmers — particularly catfish, shrimpers and crabbers — have been sold out. The same problems U.S. catfish farmers are facing are in play for U.S. shrimpers. The same banned chemicals are being found in shrimp being imported from Asia. Crab are being raised in China and that will threaten our industry in the Chesapeake Bay and Carolinas.”

The (Catfish Institute) press release points to the trip Bush is planning…

“Yeah, on Nov. 18 and 19, he'll be in Hanoi to meet with the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation group of countries that include Vietnam and China. He's told the leaders of Congress he wants the treaty authorizing the extension of permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam passed. He wants to sign that before he goes on the trip.

“Leaders in Congress know there's controversy about the further export of U.S. jobs overseas. It's become an issue that everyone understands — globalization has an obvious downside. So leaders in both the House and Senate announced they'd wait until after the Nov. 7 elections to pass this bill. It'll be a lame-duck Congress that will pass this and get it to President Bush so he can happily sign it and take it to the Vietnamese and Chinese.”

How much of a chance do you have of stopping it?

“The Bush administration signed a treaty with Vietnam May 31. Treaties must be approved by Congress. That treaty went to the Senate Finance Committee for review. The committee unanimously approved it and sent it to the full Senate, where it has since been awaiting action.

“In the House, the treaty was sent to the Ways and Means Committee for consideration. The word is that… the committee will quickly approve it after the Nov. 7 election and send it to the full House. Presumably, it will pass.

“I don't know it can be stopped. But… this is a national security issue and a consumer safety issue.

“Studies have been done on fish at seafood restaurants. Labs consistently find that as much as half, or more, of the fish they do DNA tests on isn't the fish listed on the menu. Much of that is Vietnamese basa. No doubt, more Chinese fish will be showing up, too.

“So why are Americans being victims of this consumer fraud? Why is the government allowing it? This is food — we have a right to know what we're eating.

“U.S. citizens are being defrauded and unwittingly exposing themselves and their children to harmful chemicals. How is this not a big deal?”

On restaurants and grocers…

“U.S. supermarkets have high standards. They require country of origin labeling. But restaurants don't.

“One of the problems is major retailers — like McDonalds or Wal-Mart — have been negotiating deals with Vietnam and China to bring in their fish fillets. Once those are fried and served to consumers, under who knows what name, it's a done deal. Do you really know what types of fish make up the nuggets? Of course not.

“This is happening at the same time the federal government, which for years has been telling us we need protecting — ‘never more than now!’ — are allowing our food supply to be compromised like this by foreign powers. And let's be clear: these are foreign, state-owned enterprises.”