Catfish, Pangasius and Joke’s on American consumers

During last month’s State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama cited salmon as a shining example of government inefficiency: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water. I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

Obama’s joke — perhaps the most memorable moment of his 62-minute speech — drew a hearty laugh from the congressional audience. But the government inefficiency that’s to come once the U.S. Department of Agriculture is officially put in charge of inspecting domestic and imported catfish is no laughing matter.

Nowhere in the measure (part of the 2008 Farm Bill) or in the rule dictating the measure does it specify that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would be relieved of its duties, meaning two agencies would be responsible for inspecting catfish.

Talk about government inefficiency.

But it doesn’t end there. This is a quandary riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions whose implications, unfortunately, go well beyond seafood.

The USDA has no experience regulating seafood, and catfish will be the only fish species under its regulatory scope. Just last week, the Government Accountability Office identified catfish as an area of “high risk” for “fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement” because food-safety oversight is so fragmented and resources are so scarce.

Establishing the USDA catfish-inspection program is expected to cost USD 30 million in fiscal 2011 and 2012. In the rule, the USDA, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, says seven outbreaks, 66 illnesses, eight hospitalizations and zero deaths have been tied to catfish consumption since 1990. That translates to an average of 3.3 illnesses a year. But, in the same rule, the agency says about 790 illnesses would need to be averted annually to justify the cost of the new program.

What’s more, it’s still undetermined whether pangasius, the catfish-like species farmed primarily in Vietnam, will be included in the program. In a 2002 law intended to protect domestic catfish farmers, only fish in the Ictaluridae family is allowed to be labeled as “catfish” (pangasius is in the Pangasiidae family). In a blatant example of hypocrisy, the law may need to be reversed for pangasius to be included in the program.

And then there’s the likelihood of igniting a trade war with key seafood-trading partners such as China and Vietnam, which would retaliate with trade barriers of their own or take the matter up with the World Trade Organization — and win. The USDA’s inexperience with seafood is sure to curb the flow of imported catfish and potentially pangasius into the U.S. market, where price-conscious consumers have embraced the mild whitefish (both catfish and pangasius are among the country’s 10 most consumed fish species).

It’s not too late to act. The rule’s public-comment period lasts 120 days. It’s paramount that the industry’s voice be heard, because who’s to say additional fish species won’t come under USDA oversight in the future? If the industry is mum, then, ultimately, the joke will be on American consumers, whose access to inexpensive whitefish will dwindle.



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