Customers of Mississippi restaurants will now know whether the catfish on their table is domestically produced or is an imported variety of catfish-like pangasius, also sold as basa, tra and swai.
Mississippi producers persuaded legislators this month to amend the state’s catfish Country of Origin Labeling law to require restaurants to also identify the origin of foreign produced pangasius, a species not previously included in the disclosure rule.
Mississippi’s 2008 labeling law requires restaurants that serve domestic catfish to place visible signs or stickers stating they serve the U.S. product. Restaurants serving foreign-raised catfish are required to note the country of origin on the menu or at the buffet near where the item is offered. This year’s addition to the law adds pangasius and its other monikers basa, tra and swai.
“This closes up a potential loophole,” said Jeremy Robbins, VP of the Jackson-based Catfish Institute. “It informs customers about what they’re eating,” he said.
Attorney General Jim Hood advised closure of the loophole, according to Robbins.
The measure, approved unanimously by legislator sin both houses, gives “restaurant patrons the power to decide for themselves if they wish to eat the cheaper, but often tainted, imports,“ said Roger Barlow, president of the Catfish Institute.
Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of pangasius — an import Barlow says incurs huge inspection violation numbers despite the Food and Drug Administration‘s minimal testing.
“Although the FDA tests less than 1 percent of imported seafood, it consistently finds serious violations in pangasius imports,” Barlow said. “Of the 17 pangasius shipments subject to FDA import refusal actions last year, six had residues of both the carcinogen nitrofuran and illegal and potentially harmful veterinarian drugs, which are banned in the United States. Salmonella was found in 10 shipments, and one shipment was refused for being ‘filthy.’”
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, newly elevated to ranking Republican member on the Agriculture Committee, sponsored a 2008 Farm Bill requirement on imported catfish inspections. He has been critical, however, of what he says has been the federal failure to implement a more stringent inspection process for imported fish products.
In a press statement last week, he urged the Obama administration to initiate “an inspection program that will ensure the quality of fish imports, particularly for imports marketed as catfish.”
Robbins said Cochran is especially concerned that requirements for the inspections have been the victim of inaction. “There’s been no funding for it,” though the 2008 Farm Bill requires it, Robbins noted.
The FDA is now responsible for inspecting imported catfish but the Farm Bill transfers that job to the Department of Agriculture. No movement has occurred in the transfer, according to Robbins.
“It’s been held up in the bureaucracy of Washington,” he said.