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USDA delays decision on catfish inspections

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department has delayed a decision on a new catfish inspection program that threatens to derail U.S. trade relations with Vietnam.

The agency released a proposed rule Friday seeking more comment on the key question of whether Asian catfish will be subject to a new inspection regime that Congress passed in 2008 and that Asian producers say could kill their export business to the U.S.

The domestic catfish industry, mostly located in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, has worked for years to slow imports, arguing that Asian species are an inferior product and the imports pose safety risks. They convinced Congress to include new rules in the 2008 farm bill making catfish the only seafood to be inspected by USDA instead of the Food and Drug Administration.

Asian producers, particularly Vietnamese, say USDA’s on-site inspections would take years to establish overseas, and the new system would amount to a backdoor trade barrier. They say the safety concerns raised by U.S. producers are a red herring.

The USDA issued a statement Friday calling it a “complex issue” and saying the agency will continue gathering data over the six-month comment period before determining which species fall under the new requirements.

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