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Fresh farmed catfish ready for processing. (Photo: USDA-K.Hammond)

Large retailers fight catfish farmers over proposed rule

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011, 01:20 (GMT + 9)

Southern catfish farmers and a trade association representing large retailers are clashing over a broad catfish safety rule. Wal-Mart and other retailers do not want US Agriculture Department (USDA) catfish inspections to cover swai, basa and other Asian whitefish imports out of fear that fish imports would be cut, while US catfish farmers think these inspections should be done by the USDA to ensure safety for consumers.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association told the agency that its “significant concerns” include that the proposed regulation would push prices for the products up.

“Those offerings would be expected to disappear from store shelves following issuance of a final rule,” said Stephanie Lester, vice president of international trade for the association, reports Arkansas News. “The lack of available product would be expected to cause instantaneous price increases.” 

Opponents also argue the move would make trade unfair.

In contrast, Southern catfish farmers say broadening the definition of catfish in the proposed rule would insure the safety of all farm-raised catfish or catfish-like products for US consumers. They noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects only 0.1 per cent of foreign seafood and does not screen for certain chemicals and drugs used in foreign aquaculture but banned in the US.

“This is vital to the safety of American consumers and is of vital importance to the survival of the US farm-raised catfish industry,” said Sissy Bridges of Catfish Farmers of America (CFA).

As well, the retail association is not sure moving catfish regulation from the FDA, which looks at other seafood, to the USDA, which inspects meat and poultry, is a good idea.

Some food safety groups, scientists and members of Congress also want the USDA to take over inspections, reports Delta Farm Press.

Foreign fish exporters say the switch constitutes protectionism for the US catfish industry.

More than 250 comments went to the USDA over the public comment period that just ended after 90 days on a proposed regulation that would set an inspection system for catfish mandated by Congress in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. 

Mirroring the definition that Congress established in 2002 for marketing purposes, one decision would limit “catfish’ to members of the “ictaluridae” family. This would chiefly include the catfish raised in the US and a small portion of imports. 

The opposing decision would stretch “catfish” to include members of the “siluriformes” species and would cover basa, swai, pangasius and other Vietnamese whitefish imports.

The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) suggested that it would go to court to challenge the broader definition.

The US imported some USD 185 million worth of Vietnamese fish in 2010 that it sells as basa, swai and tra.

Related article:

- USDA holds hearings on catfish regulations 


By Natalia Real


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