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Support for repealing USDA inspection of catfish imports gaining strength

By JACK WEATHERLY

Legislation that could have an immense impact on America’s catfish industry has gained strong support in the U.S. House.

One hundred and eighty members of the House have signed a letter that has been sent to  House leadership calling for taking up a measure to halt the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection of imported catfish.

Among the signees are most of the Republicans, who control the 435-member House, said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which lobbies for the importers.

“There’s little doubt that, by and large, the House wants to take this up,” Gibbons said in an interview with the Mississippi Business Journal, citing the bipartisan support. No members of the Mississippi delegation signed it. Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, both Republicans, fought the Senate Joint Resolution 28.

Jeremy Robbins, vice president of the Jackson-based Catfish Institute, said the industry is fighting the legislation in the House.

“We’re sharing the truth, the facts,” Robbins said.

Proponents of Joint Resolution 28, which the upper chamber passed 55-43 on May 25, say that switching inspection duties to the USDA is a waste of money, $14 million a year.

Yet, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service final rule puts the annual figure much lower, $1.4 million.

The House Committee on Agriculture said in a release last week that that opponents of USDA inspection “continue to cite outdated program costs from a 2013 [Government Accounting Office] report.”

The Food and Drug Adminstration has been the watchdog for seafood imports for about 20 years, but critics note that it annually inspects only 2 percent of the imports and just 0.2 percent undergo lab tests.

The Fisheries Institute spokesman Gibbons says that the inspection models for the two agencies are entirely different. The FDA, he says, uses what is called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points method, a systematic preventive approach rather than finished-product inspection.

Chad Causey, spokesman for the Catfish Farmers of America, said: “That’s the FDA’s fancy way to say that they only inspect 2 percent.”

Gibbons said: “This has never been about food safety. This has always been about erecting a trade barrier.”

Causey said that the World Trade Organization has ruled in favor of the United States, which was accused of erecting trade barriers though its inspection of beef, pork and poultry, Causey said. The same would be true for the inspection of seafood imports, he said.

Critics say that the USDA inspection program would be duplicative in cases where a business sells catfish and other imported seafood. The USDA would inspect the catfish and the FDA would inspect the seafood, as it does now.

An importer of seafood,  U.S. Cado Holdings Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., is recalling approximately 25,760 pounds of imported, frozen swai fillets products that were distributed into U.S. commerce without meeting federal requirements, the FSIS reported Monday. The recall is considered high risk by the USDA’s inspection service.

Swai, also called basa or tra, are members of the Pangasius genus, which is in the Siluriformes order, whose members include catfish.

While the Catfish Farmers of America described the recall as proof that the USDA inspection program, which began an 18-month transitional period on March 1, is already showing results, Cado Holdings reported it to the agency, according to a release from the federal agency.

Dr. Jimmy Avery, Extension Service aquaculture professor at Mississippi State University, says that the main exporters of catfish, China and Vietnam, do not have control of their fish industry, allowing fish with antifungal chemicals, which are carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, and “veterinary drug residues” to be exported.

Fish from those nations and others typically sell for 30 percent to 40 percent cheaper than domestic catfish, explaining how imports have been able to dominate the U.S. market.

Proponents of USDA inspections of foreign catfish include the Consumer Federation of America; Consumers Union; Food & Water Watch and the National Consumers League.

Opponents include the National Taxpayers Union, Less Government, the Center for Individual Freedom, the Club for Growth and other anti-government waste organizations.

Much is at stake for Mississippi, the leader in the domestic industry, which has shrunk in the past decade, from controlling two-thirds of the catfish market, to claiming only about 30 percent now.

In 2001, there were 10,000 direct and indirect jobs in Mississippi’s catfish industry. Now it’s down to 4,000, according to Avery.

Mississippi’s water acreage used in production continues its slide from a high point in the early 2000s of more than 100,000 acres to 36,000 this year, according to the USDA.

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