July 22, 2010
The Senate Agriculture chairwoman, citing food safety concerns, called on the Obama administration to issue a long-delayed regulation increasing federal inspection of imported fish marketed as catfish.
“I think each day that USDA delays is another day we put Americans’ health at risk,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said Thursday. “Nearly one-third of all catfish sold in America is imported from Vietnam and China, where fish farming environments are far less controlled and the incidence of contamination is so much greater than that in the United States.”
Chinese and Vietnamese producers compete with fish farmers in Lincoln’s state, where aquaculture is a nearly $1 billion-a-year industry.
“Due to lack of proper inspection, other countries are getting away with mislabeling their products and our fish farmers are suffering from unfair competition. Arkansas’ catfish industry lost $13 million and numerous jobs in just one year,” Lincoln said.
The proposed regulation has been in interagency limbo since the U.S. Trade Representative Office raised concerns with the Agriculture Department about the measure’s effect on trade and expenses for importers in the United States. Critics say the regulation could amount to a short-term ban on imported catfish as foreign producers work to meet tougher standards.
A final version of the regulation was due December 2009, but the Agriculture Department has yet to issue a draft rule.
In the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-234), Congress shifted responsibility for the safety of imported fish from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Lawmakers left it to that agency to determine which imported species should be inspected.
At a press conference Thursday, Joey Lowery, an Arkansan and president of Catfish Farmers of America, joined Lincoln in urging the agencies to settle their differences so the Agriculture Department can issue the rule. Lowery released a report that concludes there are long-term health risks to U.S. consumers from eating foreign fish raised in contaminated waters and treated with carcinogenic chemicals and drugs banned in the United States.
Barbara Petersen, the lead scientist on the report Lowery’s organization commissioned from Exponent, a scientific consulting firm, said a review of data compiled by the FDA from a sampling of 2 percent of imported seafood shows “there is a difference between domestic and imported catfish. You see more illegal antibiotics and there’s more salmonella [in imported catfish]. It’s clear they are not being grown and processed under the same conditions.”
But Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for consumer group Food & Water Watch, said the Agriculture Department’s continuous inspection standard is more comprehensive than the FDA’s sampling and “affords the consumer more protection.”
“The more we studied this issue, the more it made sense to us that it’s a food safety issue,” Corbo said.