U.S. Catfish Farmers Seek Safety Net
Industry hopes more regulation will slow its foreign competition
By MOLLY HARBARGER
Posted: March 12, 2011, 3:11AM
WASHINGTON - Seldom do U.S. businesses seek — even lobby for – more government regulation of their industries. But American catfish farmers see federal regulation as the only thing between their livelihoods and financial ruin.
A fear of competition from lower-priced foreign imports from Southeast Asia has Texas catfish farmers and their trade groups embracing U.S. government regulation.
Steve Klingaman, owner of Aqua Farms in El Campo, says imported fish from China and Vietnam, which he considers inferior and environmentally unsafe, could have a devastating effect on his catfish farm.
“There’s no doubt it will put us out of business,” he said. “I still have a fish farm, but I’m thinking very seriously about closing it.”
Already, he’s had to lay off 40 workers.
The U.S. government soon may step in to help aquaculture businesses such as Klingaman’s.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now seeking public feedback on its plan to oversee catfish farming at every stage of production – the first step toward regulating all catfish bound for the United States, whether grown domestically or internationally.
“Definitely, they need to be regulated,” says Klingaman, referring to his competition in China and Vietnam. “They need to be looked at real heavily.”
Foreign catfish producers say the new rules would violate World Trade Organization rules by unfairly assisting domestic companies.
American catfish farmers, however, claim that many fish imports from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta are bringing unsafe chemicals into the U.S. food supply, compared with the largely mechanized American production methods.
American catfish farmers sold $403 million worth of fish in 2010, an 8 percent increase from the year before, according to the USDA. The top four states – Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas – account for 94 percent of total sales.
Texas had more than $13 million in 2010 sales, a slight increase from 2009. Matagorda and Wharton counties lead the state in catfish production.
Texans eat 55 million pounds of the whiskered fish each year, making the state the second-highest consumer of catfish, per capita.
Most not inspected
The federal Food and Drug Administration inspects just 2 percent of seafood, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
That’s one reason the catfish industry got behind 2008 legislation on Capitol Hill that shifted oversight of catfish from the FDA to the Agriculture Department, which in the past has regulated meat but not seafood.
Their reasoning: The Agriculture Department had more personnel to enforce health and safety rules.
“For U.S. catfish farmers, food safety is our highest priority and we welcome stricter USDA oversight of both our domestic catfish and imported catfish,” said Joey Lowery, president of the Catfish Farmers of America. “Whether a food safety incident results from domestic or foreign fish, the impact is the same: Consumer confidence in all catfish plummets.”
The backlash against foreign fish, however, sounds a lot like protectionism to the National Fisheries Institute, which represents international catfish farmers.
Spokesman Gavin Gibbons said it is a costly way for catfish farmers to nudge out competition from countries that are selling fish that taste similar to channel catfish at lower prices.
“It is not about food safety,” said Gibbons.
“It’s about trade, and it’s quickly becoming about wasting taxpayers’ money.”
What is a catfish?
It’s also about the government’s definition of a catfish.
The USDA is seeking public comment on the definition, setting forth two options: A catfish is either any fish in the Siluriformes order, which would include the Chinese and Vietnamese pangasius fish, or it is just the North American native Ictaluridae family.
Most American farmers are asking for the broader definition that would require the USDA to inspect all fish imports.
If the broader definition were adopted, it would mean the USDA would set up inspection operations in Vietnam and China, or require farmers there to prove their production methods are equivalent to the USDA’s accepted methods.
The narrower definition would apply almost exclusively to U.S. farmers.
James Bacchus, former chief judge of the World Trade Organization’s appellate panel for eight years, warns that the inspection program might result in World Trade Organization litigation.
In his legal opinion on including pangasius as catfish, he said the U.S. would need clear, scientific proof that oversight for catfish is worth the estimated $30 million it would cost and isn’t excluding foreign out of interest for U.S. farmers.