USDA slashes catfish inspection budget
As of late, good news coming from the beleaguered U.S. catfish industry has been meager at best. So, it made headlines when, after years of lobbying by the industry, the 2008 Farm Bill approved the transfer of the inspection of imported fish from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Now, there is a chance that victory is a hollow one. The USDA has delayed implementation of the program, and its current budget proposal for catfish inspections is nearly a third less than was provided by Congress for the program in fiscal year 2010. This is raising concerns from those in Congress to producers in the field.
“We have been advised by some of our aquaculture and catfish farmer constituents that the Department hasn’t been doing much to support them in their efforts to get inspections of foreign fish that are imported into the country,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “This makes it difficult to compete because the importers are not going through the same inspection processes or other safeguards that are required of our domestic producers. We have got a problem here, and folks are not only angry but some of them are also going out of business.”
“There are a lot of the producers right now who are riding the fence,” said Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America. “There are ready for some right things to happen, and USDA inspecting imported fish could be one of those things.
“If they do not see more positive news, a lot of them are going to go out of business I’m afraid.”
Over the past decade, domestic catfish producers have faced a seemingly never-ending string of set backs, from high feed costs to pond predation by birds. One issue that has persisted is with imported fish, particularly product from Asia. U.S. producers said much of the imported fish is not catfish but such species as basa, tra or swai. This creates unfair market competition to domestic farm-raised catfish and leads to consumer confusion, they claim.
Further, they maintain that the foreign fish are not raised under the same standards as U.S. catfish, raising food safety and health concerns.
Those concerns were elevated by the FDA’s inspections — or lack thereof. According to figures from the Government Accountability Office, the FDA only inspected approximately 2 percent of the 5.2 billion pounds of seafood imported into the U.S. in 2008.
The U.S. catfish industry claimed that was insufficient to ensure product safety and quality. And, they pointed to last year when the State of Alabama halted the sale of imported Asian catfish and related species after it was discovered they were contaminated with the antibiotic Fluoroquinolones, which is banned in the U.S.
The U.S. industry felt that the USDA would conduct more effective inspections, and the Department was a better “fit” for aquaculture processing than the FDA. The industry felt vindicated when the inspections were shifted to the USDA under the 2008 Farm Bill.
However, nothing thus far has happened. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reported that the USDA had submitted draft regulations for approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). But in February, OMB announced that it would delay the release of the rule for another 90 days, citing the need for “more analysis of the issues involved.”
There are certainly issues, not the least of which is international relations. Vietnam was unhappy when the U.S. pushed it to end alleged questionable marketing practices and lobbied it to improve the standards in its fish industry in 2001. Still, Cochran is not pleased with the delay.
“Regulations for this program were supposed to be released 18 months after enactment of the Farm Bill,” he said. “That goal has been missed, and I am concerned how the FY2011 budget request would affect the eventual implementation of this program, which is crucial to ensuring food safety. We have seen many instances of imported catfish shipments not meeting the safety standards in place for other imported and domestically raised agriculture products. It is my hope that the Department will quickly release these regulations and will promptly begin the inspection and grading program.”
Taylor Webb, editor of the Catfish Journal, said catfish leaders have been assured that funding will be there when it reaches Congress, and they are optimistic that the program will go forward. He added that having a USDA stamp of approval on domestic catfish would be a huge plus for the industry.
Lowery, who operates a catfish farm in Arkansas, said the industry is in desperate need of a boost. According to figures from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, catfish was the state’s sixth-largest commodity in 2009, ringing in at $182 million. Currently, there are approximately 64,000 acres of catfish ponds in Mississippi, compared to 19,800 acres and 19,200 acres in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively.
Still, that is way down from the industry’s peak. Lowery estimated that over the last couple of years alone, 25-27 percent of producers have left the farm for better, more stable returns.
Lowery acknowledged that the inspection issue is a complicated one. He added that many Asian farmers would benefit as much from a USDA stamp of approval as he and his peers. And, he feels that many foreign producers would and could meet the U.S. standards, which, in turn, would boost their exports.
“If they can’t get their fish in here, other countries might not let them in, either,” he said.
Like Cochran, Lowery chafes over the delay.
“Time is our worst enemy,” he said. “This is first and foremost a food safety and health problem. We’re risking people’s health. And, when imported fish are found to be unhealthy, it gives the domestic industry a bad name.”
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