US catfish inspection regulation – a trade barrier

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Feb 18 announced a propose rule for catfish and catfish products inspection. USDA designed these regulation to implement the 11016 provision as required in the US Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (Farm bill 2008)

The Bill addresses two key issues. First, it amends the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) to specify that catfish “is an amenable species,” thereby transferring the inspection and regulation of the fish from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Second, USDA will define which species is catfish for its inspection purposes.

If the proposed rule is approved, FSIS will conduct continuous inspection on catfish and catfish products at every “official establishment”, from farming, harvesting, transporting, and processing to consumption in the US market. A country seeking eligibility to export its catfish product into the United States would have to be recognized by FSIS, deemed equivalent and then listed as a foreign exporter of catfish in the adopted regulation.

The proposed rule sought the shift on food safety grounds to gain supports from unsuspecting public. However, its only and ultimate goal is to prevent Vietnamese Pangasius from accessing the U.S. market. If it is approved, Pangasius will become the first seafood item to face the biggest number of trade barriers that one, or the Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) may think of, from the smear campaign; the fabricated accuse of trade fraudulence preventing the fish from being labeled catfish; the antidumping duty; to this unfair treatment.

Catfish is not… catfish but is… catfish

The proposed rule provides two options for the definition of catfish and seeks public comment on the issue. One option is the current labeling definition in the 2002 Farm Bill, which includes only species in the family Ictaluridae – mostly farmed in America and South America and legally labeled catfish in the US market. The other option is to define catfish as all species in the order Siluriformes, including the three families typically found in human food channels, including Ictaluridae, Pangasiidae, andClariidae.

In 2002, USDA also sought public comments on catfish definition and then decided that only the species in the family Ictaluridae would be labeled catfish despites numerous demonstrations that the name is used widely for many different species in the order Siluriformes, including the channel catfish and blue catfish farmed in the US and the giant Mekong catfish.

Though CFA got what they wanted, i.e. prohibiting Pangasius from being labeled catfish, they cannot dent its growing popularity as a good quality and affordable fish available in abundant supplies. The frustrating fact prompts them to come up with another trick.

If one looks closely, they will find that FSIS enclosed the taxonomy of the cafishes with all 36 families of the order Siluriformes being included though it offered two options for the definition of catfish. This means that when they do not want to, only one family is called catfish and when they do, everything will become catfish!?

How many people will therefore grasp the true inner meaning of the proposed rule and hit the right chord when it is presented in such a complicated and confusing manner?

So far, there have been comments on the proposed rule at the website http://www.regulations.gov. However, besides the well-reasoned and well-informed arguments, many advocates just based on the vague belief that the food produced in Asian countries is dirty and unhealthy.

The change in catfish inspection regime is pushed on the grounds of food safety for consumers. But why catfish only but not other seafood items? Or is it because FDA is unable to inspect catfish? No satisfactory answers have ever been given.

According to the US authorities themselves, FDA has so far done their job well. And just a while ago, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to strengthen the FDA’s food safety system.

In the proposed rule, FSIS said “sparse information on the distribution of microbial contamination and chemical residues on catfish limit our ability to make strong statements about the baseline risk.”

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, since 1990, there have been seven illness outbreaks suspected to be linked with catfish consumption. The outbreaks have included such 66 illnesses and 8 hospitalizations. However, in only one of these outbreaks was catfish specifically identified as possible vehicles of infection. Particular, there has been merely one catfish-associated outbreak from Salmonella in the past twenty years, which happened in 1991 (remember that by that time Viet Nam and the US have not yet normalized relations and Viet Nam has not shipped Pangasius to any markets). FSIS note that since FDA’s implementation of regulations that require processors of fish and fishery products to develop and implement HACCP systems for their operations, no cases of salmonellosis linked to catfish have been reported.

FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider commercially raised catfish to be much safer than many other food items and poses particularly low-risk compared to shellfish poisoning, foot-and-mouth disease among pigs, and mad cow disease, etc. As a result, it is irrelevant to apply a separate inspection regime for the fish. Besides, there is a risk that exporters may be regulated twice by both FDA and FSIS, thereby increasing the costs. The US inspection program also becomes more cumbersome, duplicative, and wasteful.

Who lose? Who win?

The US statistics showed that imported Pangasius generated 11,000 employments for Americans and about US$1 billion in revenue for the country’s food processing and service industry in 2008. The US consumers also benefit from the fish as they have one more affordable, delicious and convenient food option when the economic downturn forced they to tighten their belts. On the other hand, to rear the fish, Viet Nam has to import large amounts of environment treatment bio-products as well as ingredients for feed processing (soya meal, corn, etc.) from the US. Many US companies have invested in thePangasius industry and became successful. They are the feed producers, bio-product suppliers, technology service providers, and certification bodies. Therefore not only Viet Nam but the US also benefit from the imported Pangasius.

Then who lose because of imported Pangasius? CFA always takes the lead in all campaigns against Vietnamese Pangasius, thinking that their catfish is hampered by such fish. However, American analysis revealed that the US catfish production would not increase. It could only decrease given the unfavorable natural conditions, polluted environment, high cost of water treatment, expensive and scare labour, and because of many farmers shift to more promising species such as tilapia, seaweed, or soya bean.

Those who lose most in the battle will be the Pangasius producers and traders. FSIS will assign inspectors to every establishment to continuously inspect the farming conditions, particularly the pond water and feed quality; harvest; transportation; processing; and product preservation, etc. According to what is described in the proposed rule, the establishments have to provide office space and furnishings for the exclusive use of the inspector and other FSIS program employees assigned to the establishments.

FSIS will implement the rule in four phases. The final phase – if being fully accomplished – requires that to be eligible for importation of their product to the United States, the foreign country have to be listed as having implemented a catfish inspection program that equivalent to the US inspection program. So far, few countries have been included in the list, except for a couple of meat and poultry producers and the approval is often based on prolonged and reciprocal negotiations.

CFA can get anything they want?

No, they cannot in the sense of equality of international relations. Recently, CFA has asked the US Department of Commerce (DOC) to raise Pangasius antidumping margins by using Philippines as surrogate country instead of Bangladesh. However, the attempt failed when Viet Nam produced evidence that it is groundless and improper to do so. Finally, the antidumping margins that DOC announced did not increase but declined compared to the previous ones.

Thus, if the CFA’s excessive demands are confronted by irrefutable evidence, USDA cannot continue to indulge them. There have been protests against the proposed rule, not only from the Viet Nam but also the US sides. John McCain and 5 other US senators are lobbying the US Congress to pass S.496, a bill to rescind the provision 11016 in the 2008 Farm Bill. These senators said that there is no reason to block the import of Vietnamese Pangasius. Besides incurring unnecessary inspection burdens, such attempt would have negative market and trade consequences and would likely invite similar gamesmanship among the US trade partners.

Source: Vietfish International

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One Response to US catfish inspection regulation – a trade barrier

  1. Pingback: Catfish Feed Suppliers - FISHING WORLD – FISHING WORLD

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