An eight-year struggle to require foreign and domestically produced catfish to undergo the same health safety inspections has ended with the inspection requirement surviving as part of the Farm Bill extension approved by a 68-32 Senate vote Tuesday.
Domestic producers expect the inspection rules — which are permanent and supposed to be in effect within 14 months — to help level what they say has been a very un-level market competition brought on by Asian producers, especially Vietnamese, undercutting U.S.-grown catfish by $1.50 to $2 a pound.
But the question is whether enacting the inspection rule will come too late to save Mississippi catfish farming. Even the measure’s principal architect, Mississippi’s Sen. Thad Cochran, has doubts on how quickly the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the Department of Agriculture will move to take over inspection duties from the Food and Drug Administration.
“The USDA is already many years behind, ” Cochran said in an email after Tuesday’s Senate vote.
The legislation requires the USDA to issue rules within 60 days and to begin enforcement within a year after that.
The 2008 Farm Bill handed catfish inspections to the USDA. In the years that followed, the USDA wrestled with how broadly to define catfish, specifically whether to include the Asian grown pangasius — a seafood product sold in the United States as catfish.
The 2014 Farm Bill — which came two years after 2008’s five-year extension lapsed — puts pangasius under USDA inspection, a hard-fought provision Cochran, ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, and Michigan’s Sen. Debbie Stabenow, committee chair, insisted on to protect the health of U.S. seafood consumers.
In the meantime, catfish production in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South dropped dramatically as significantly lower priced pangasius imports captured ever-larger market share. In the years after the 2008 inspection mandate stalled, Mississippi acreage devoted to catfish production declined from 113,000 to 51,000 last year and is expected to fall to 47,000 by the end of this year, according to Ben Pentecost, president of the Catfish Farmers of America and co-owner of Pentecost Brothers, a 734-acre catfish farm in the Delta’s Doddsville.
With the acreage decline came a drop from 600 million live weight pounds to roughly 300 million last year, Pentecost said, though he added increases in production efficiency are expected to bring the poundage up to around 330 million this year.
Pentecost said the six-year wait nearly exhausted the patience and resources of the 300 or so members of Catfish Farmers of America. “When this was included in the 2008 bill we were thinking if we could just hang on until 2012 until they get it implemented. That didn’t happen,” Pentecost said. “We had a couple tough years in there.”
The best hope, Pentecost said, is for the market leveling to help stop the slide.
Additional leveling will come from a ruling last year by the U.S. Department of Commerce tying the price of imported pangasius to import prices fetched by producers in the Philippines, rather than much lower priced Bangladesh pangasius.
“I think that is a plus, but it is a slow-moving process,” Pentecost said.
In recent years, Cochran and congressional allies trying to salvage the South’s once-promising catfish farming industry have had little, if any, support from other agricultural sectors, according to Pentecost.
For instance, members of Congress from states as varied as Massachusetts and Montana have withheld support for the domestic catfish industry, he said.
He said Massachusetts seeks to protect its stake as an import point for pangasius, while Montana fears trade retaliation from Vietnam, a major importer of beef from the state.
Likewise, the soybean industry, which takes in the entire Midwest, fears Vietnam may slap new tariffs on the vast amounts of U.S. soybean meal it imports, according to Penecost.
Then there is the opposition from Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, the influential former Republican presidential candidate. McCain has long advocated for removal of barriers to trade with Vietnam, where he was held as a prisoner of war for many years during the Vietnam conflict.
On the other hand, Pentecost added, “We have a lot of support from people who feel like we should buy America.”