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Houston Chronicle: U.S. Catfish Farmers Seek Safety Net

U.S. Catfish Farmers Seek Safety Net
Industry hopes more regulation will slow its foreign competition

By MOLLY HARBARGER
Houston Chronicle
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.

Narrower definition
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.

Agriculture: U.S. State Requires Catfish Origins

Vietnam News Brief Service
July 8, 2010

Tennessee State government in the U.S. has issued a new law to require country-of-origin labeling on catfish products from the Mississippi or the Mekong Delta since July 1, said the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP).

This is the third state after Mississippi and Arkansas to require restaurants and retail stores to tell customers where they get their catfish, with a view to make catfish safer for consumers and to help level a playing field for American catfish farmers.

However, the law will not hurt Vietnamese tra and basa fish exports to the market as the products are not classified as catfish given a 2002 federal mandate, Truong Dinh Hoe, general secretary of VASEP was cited by the Thoi Bao Kinh Te Sai Gon online newspaper as saying.

He added that most Vietnamese tra and basa fish products are exported to California and eastern states.

Vietnam earned $539 million from exporting 250,000 tons of tra and basa fish in the first half of this year, up 13% and 21% on year, respectively.

COCHRAN WANTS USDA FOOD SAFETY NOMINEE TO SUPPORT CATFISH INSPECTIONS

Congressional Documents
May 27, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) today indicated that he wants the Obama Administration’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service to support implementation of a federal law to begin inspections of catfish.

Cochran serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee that today conducted a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Dr. Elisabeth Hagen to be the USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety.

Cochran submitted a question to Hagen regarding the implementation of a catfish inspection program as mandated in the 2008 Farm Bill. Proposed USDA rules for such inspections were issued in February, but were subjected to a 90-day hold in February by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“While the catfish inspection regulations are still under review within the White House, I am hopeful we can see a resolution of this issue soon. I would like a commitment from Dr. Hagen that she will take swift and decisive action to institute new policies requiring the Food Safety and Inspection Service to enforce standards for all catfish sold in the United States,” Cochran said.

“The aquaculture industry in Mississippi and around the country believes the American public deserves to know that any catfish they purchase meets food safety standards,” he said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee must favorably recommend Hagen’s nomination before it can be forwarded to the full Senate for confirmation.

In March, Cochran also pressed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the lack of action in implementing the catfish inspections. In the President’s FY2011 budget request, the administration submitted a proposal to rescind $10.3 million of the $15.3 million provided by Congress for the USDA Catfish Inspection Program.

Eyes on Vietnamese catfish farming

Three-minute film shows crowded, polluted growing conditions of Vietnamese catfish farming practices.

By David Bennett
Delta Farm Press Editorial Staff
May 26, 2010 9:53 AM

A recently released three-minute film puts the spotlight on Vietnamese catfish farming practices. The footage — showing crowded, polluted growing conditions — was shot during the third week of April by a crew hired by Catfish Farmers of America.

Web site targets unsafe catfish imports

“They went straight to where the fish are being produced and processed before being sent (to the United States),” said Chip Morgan, executive vice-president of the Delta Council, which is calling for the USDA to ramp up inspections of seafood imports.

For more info, see here and here.

Despite long-time complaints, Vietnam continues to export catfish tainted by pollution and antibiotics. Morgan says video shot in 2003 shows the same fish-farming conditions captured on film just a few weeks ago. “Nothing has changed — and isn’t going to change.”

Only 2 percent of imported seafood is inspected annually. Seeking to remedy that, the 2008 farm bill requires the USDA to begin inspecting imported seafood, a job that had been held by the Food and Drug Administration. However, for fear of igniting a trade dispute, U.S. trade representatives have prevented such inspections from taking place. A ruling on the inspections is expected soon.

“What we’re hearing is the rule that’s coming won’t be the one we most desire,” said Morgan. “But it’ll leave us with a fighting chance. What they’ll come out with is a ‘vanilla’ rule. They won’t fall on either side of the major issue: the definition of catfish.

“The family of catfish includes the Vietnamese fish (being exported to the United States). There are different types in the taxonomy of catfish. We produce channel catfish. The Vietnamese catfish, basa and tra, fall in the same family but not the same genus.

“So, the government won’t define taxonomically the catfish we’re talking about. They’ll let the U.S. farmers and the importers and lobbyists argue through the rulemaking process about which catfish should be included in the inspections.

“Obviously, we think all catfish should be included. If it doesn’t, the catfish you see on that film will continue to not be inspected.”

The most compelling argument for inspections — “and the only possible excuse you could use for not inspecting the fish on that video — is that you don’t want retaliation from the Vietnamese government. Our question is: when did we start trading food safety for trade? That’s the last straw.”

With the evidence gathered, “It’s hard for me to believe someone would consciously say, ‘We need to keep shipping in 200,000 pounds a year of (basa and tra) to sell, uninspected, to American families.’”

Beef, poultry and pork all must pass USDA inspections. Morgan says catfish needs the same scrutiny and the law should be followed.

“When are we going to stop this frenzy with trade over food safety? If we aren’t going to stop at food safety where will we stop?”

Food Safety Website SAFECATFISH.COM Launched Today

Highlights Dangers of Imported Catfish

PRESS RELEASE
For Immediate Release:
May 24, 2010

A new food safety website promoting tougher inspections and regulation of imported and domestic catfish is being launched Monday, May 24, at www.safecatfish.com.

The website exposes the health and safety dangers to American consumers created by the Food and Drug Administration’s weak inspection system for imported seafood. The site includes a graphic new investigative report, “Dirty Waters, Dangerous Fish,” which shows current evidence of unsafe catfish farming practices along the polluted and contaminated Mekong River in Vietnam.

Currently the FDA, which is responsible for the inspection of catfish and other seafood, inspects only two percent of the 5.2 billion pounds of seafood imported into the United States from foreign countries, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Among the two percent of seafood imports from Vietnam inspected by the FDA during a recent four-year period, nearly one in every five shipments was found to contain catfish and other seafood products contaminated with potentially deadly chemicals or drugs that are banned by the United States in farm-raised catfish, according to FDA records.

The U.S. Congress, responding to evidence of serious problems with the quality of imported catfish, voted two years ago to move catfish inspections and regulation from the FDA to USDA. This important food safety law has become entangled in bureaucratic red tape, and is now being threatened by yet more delays. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which has no authority over food safety issues, is holding up the law over concerns that protecting U.S. consumers could harm Vietnamese fish farmers and U.S.-Vietnamese trade relations.

The new website, www.safecatfish.com, also will post on Monday a new series of letters between Congressional offices and the federal agencies involved in enforcing the law that reveal political efforts to dilute important food safety protections.

The political attempts to derail the law designed to protect American consumers comes as the amount of catfish imported to the United States from Vietnam is increasing dramatically. Vietnamese catfish imports have quadrupled in the past five years from 19 million pounds in 2004 to 85 million in 2009, according to U.S. government figures.

The website also provides links to numerous Vietnamese and other Asian news media accounts of Vietnamese government officials warning their own catfish farmers to improve farm safety practices, halt the use of drugs banned in other countries and upgrade the quality of the water used in their catfish ponds.

Contact:
1-888-486-4150
info@safecatfish.com
www.safecatfish.com

USDA Catfish Inspections – Unresolved

By David Bennett
Delta Farm Press Editorial Staff
May 20, 2010 (10:25 AM)

As part of the 2008 farm bill, Congress instructed the USDA to expand its inspections of meat and poultry products to catfish.

The inspections were supposed to begin within six months of the farm bill’s passage. U.S. catfish producers welcomed the expansion since it would make their product more attractive to U.S. consumers and would mean Asian imports would finally be properly inspected.

Now, nearly two years later, the inspections remain tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Catfish imports continue to move into U.S. markets with little scrutiny. A measure of the problem: In 2008, a paltry 2 percent of over 5 billion pounds of imported seafood was inspected.

The reason for the holdup is trade. For fear of upsetting Asian trading partners the U.S. Trade Representative office has held off issuing a rule on the inspections.

For more, go here and here.

Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been pushing for the farm bill rule to be fully implemented. Reached in mid-May, staff say the senator “continues to stress the importance of food safety and urge that USDA inspect all catfish imports as the farm bill called for.”

In a recent release, the Mississippi-based Delta Council weighed in, saying, “Food safety equivalency standards must be implemented by USDA if the U.S. consumer is to expect the same level of quality control in catfish that consumers currently enjoy with beef, poultry, and pork.”

Further, Lester Myers, Delta Council Aquaculture Committee chairman, said, “Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring the inspection of our domestic catfish industry and foreign imports, but the (Obama) administration has been dragging its feet in implementing the final rules to support the law which Congress passed that we believe is due to a fear of trade retaliation by Asian countries with a track record of sending contaminated fish to the U.S.

“Why should the American consumer be able to get beef, poultry and pork at the marketplace, whether a restaurant or grocery store, that has been inspected by USDA, but farm-raised catfish grown in the United States and abroad doesn’t meet the same equivalency standards in terms of food safety?”

Myers continued: “The bottom line is that the Congress passed a law, the (Obama) administration is flatly refusing to implement the law due to pressure by the Washington lobby for foreign countries, and the food safety issues associated with these imported fish are being swept under the rug.”

Reached at his central Arkansas operation, Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America, agrees with Myers.

“Right now, we’re still waiting and trying to be patient,” said Lowery. “There are a lot of rumors about when the rule might come down. Things have been very hush-hush since it went into the inter-agency process. The rule will come out and when it does we’ll have to make sure the proper thing has been done.

“But when the ruling does come down it’s not over — the process will shift to a comment period. This is a food safety issue and, the way I see it, everyone is losing.”

As of mid-May, how is the catfish season progressing?

“I think sales have been decent,” said Lowery. “Plants have had good sales, the weather has been fairly good and we’re feeding now.”

Unfortunately feed costs remain high.

“Producers have their hands full because of that and potentially higher fuel costs,” said Lowery. “To survive, producers will have to be really good managers — nothing will be easy.

“So, even though prices for catfish are good the costs of inputs are higher, as well. That higher catfish price isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Producers are still not receiving enough to maintain operations. We need more money for our fish — that, or feed and input costs to come down.”

Could there be a boost for aquaculture if the oil spill in the Gulf hampers fishing?

“I think it could,” said Lowery. “There haven’t been a lot of folks commenting on it. But there may be some replacement of Gulf shrimp and oysters with farm-raised catfish. I wish hardship on no one, but if the spill means that seafood is inedible I hope consumers turn to our catfish.”

Weighty issue: Mislabeling of frozen fish, seafood rarely punished

Mislabeling common, but enforcement lacking, leaving mostly self-policing

By Julie Wernau and Alejandra Cancino
Chicago Tribune
April 25, 2010

At Super H Mart in Naperville, Nancy Jih piled a dozen packages of fresh salmon into her shopping cart that she planned to cut, wrap in individual baggies and freeze. That way, she said, she knows exactly what she is getting.

She has followed this practice since last fall, when frozen pollock fillets she purchased at another store seemed to weigh less than what the label indicated. Even her husband noticed. “How come you cooked so little?” she recalled him saying. Jih, who lives in Willowbrook, said she suspected she had been charged for the ice with her fish.

“How many people had the same thing happen as I did?”

Jih’s experience apparently is widespread. Voluntary inspections of seafood distributors by an arm of the federal Commerce Department find nearly a third of seafood they check is mislabeled, usually because of ice being included in the weight of the fish, but more recently because of the added weight of frozen or watery marinade preservatives. Sometimes even the fish are misidentified.

The Food and Drug Administration sent letters to two Illinois companies in October and February, threatening action over labeling issues. According to the letters, ocean perch was labeled snapper and the weight of frozen shrimp was bulked up with ice at an Addison distributor. In Bridgeview, a company that repackages seafood for home-delivery companies was distributing shrimp coated with water, citric acid and salt that made up 20 percent of the weight of the bag, according to the FDA letter.

The FDA, which inspects only 2 percent of the seafood coming into the United States, last year was criticized in a Government Accountability Office report for its failure to enforce laws against fraud, such as mislabeling. The report said the FDA has rarely, if ever, taken legal action against companies in the past decade, although it does issue warning letters. As a result, the seafood industry largely relies on self-policing.

Mislabeling is rampant, complained Jeff Goldberg, director of shrimp procurement at Mazzetta Co., based in Highland Park. “It’s a frustrating problem that companies like ours deal with day in and day out,” Goldberg said.

A New York company, Goldberg said, recently advertised pollock fillets at 80 percent, 90 percent and 100 percent net weight. The significance, he said, is that some distributors buy the 80 percent net weight fish and repackage and sell it as 100 percent, making a tidy profit. Other companies short-weight packages by a few ounces, which translates into a few cents per pound, and make lots of money in the distribution of millions of pounds of fish, he said.

“We don’t want people to get turned off on seafood,” Goldberg said. “We believe that people should get what they paid for.”

A recent Illinois investigation, part of a broader weights and measurements probe, showed distributors got about a pound more of fillets than they had paid for from Mazzetta. Jordan Mazzetta, the company’s executive vice president, said its general rule is to package more fish than what the label says. “It’s never 32 ounces, it’s always over,” said Mazzetta, who favors heavy fines against companies that cheat.

Some distributors, however, contend that the issue with iced fish is more complex than it appears, and that the FDA should focus on seafood as it arrives at U.S. ports rather than on distributors where seafood is repackaged.

More than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is from overseas, from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, and the fish is glazed with ice soon after it is caught to preserve it. Seafood can remain frozen for six to nine months before it reaches the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“It’s not uncommon to see a fish caught in Alaska … flash frozen on either a ship or a frozen processor offshore, placed in a tramper vessel, uploaded, taken on to China, placed in cold storage, and that product may go on to be further processed by a Chinese firm or American firm in China, and there’s a chance that the product could go on to Europe or on to the United States,” said Timothy Hansen, the NOAA Seafood Inspection Program director.

Once in the U.S. the seafood is repackaged to meet the needs of supermarkets and other retailers and dealers. A single shipment of salmon, for instance, could be repackaged 10 ways, Hansen said.

Hansen said it would be impossible for distribution companies to test weights of seafood they receive because that would involve opening packages, spraying off the ice glazing and weighing the fish. That process would spoil the fish, he said. It is illegal for companies to charge for the ice.

To try to protect themselves against fraud, retailers and distribution companies hire NOAA to perform seafood inspections to verify that the weight and species marked on bags are accurate. They also prefer to do business with NOAA-certified suppliers. When the weight of a bulk product is found to be short, Hansen said, the buyer and supplier usually work out a deal to credit the buyer for the short weight and the buyer will package the seafood to legal standards.

The distributors’ names are on the bags, which means they’re legally responsible for mislabeling, said Lisa Weddig, director of regulatory and technical affairs for the National Fisheries Institute Inc., an industry organization.

The inspections are voluntary. NOAA takes random samples and inspects the products using methods prescribed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

NOAA, which inspects roughly 20 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S., has no enforcement authority other than to remove its certification from suppliers found in violation of the law. It recently agreed to share its findings with the FDA after a 2009 report by the GAO found that the FDA between 2003 and 2008 physically inspected just 2 percent of imported seafood. Only 0.05 percent of those inspections were for fraud.

The report called for improving coordination and cooperation among the federal agencies whose responsibilities touch on seafood fraud – the FDA, NOAA and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. The goal, the report said, is to stop mislabeled seafood from entering the marketplace.

The agencies generally supported the report’s recommendations, and the FDA and NOAA agreed last October to try to avoid overlapping efforts.

“We only see beginning steps, but we do give agencies up to four years to implement the recommendations,” said Lisa Shames, the GAO’s director for food safety and agriculture issues.

Meanwhile, a recent investigation by weights and measures officials in 17 states, including Illinois, brought the mislabeling issue to the fore after prompting by the National Fisheries Institute. The group urged the probe because some members complained that they couldn’t compete by being honest.

The probe found that consumers were overpaying for seafood that included the weight of ice as part of the labeled weight of seafood – up to 40 percent of the weight of a bag. Four Illinois firms were found in violation of the law, many with multiple violations, and in some cases for underweight seafood they had shipped to other states.

The weights and measures officials have sent their investigative documents to the FDA, which in March said it was conducting a review to see whether further action is necessary.

In addition, the FDA’s database revealed that the agency had sent warning letters to a couple of local distributors.

At Gourmet Express Marketing Inc., in Addison, warned by the FDA for mislabeled species of fish and shortweighting shrimp, a woman who answered the phone claimed the FDA letter needed interpretation. However, repeated attempts to reach the company president were unsuccessful.

At Registry Steaks & Seafood Ltd., a repackaging company in Bridgeview, Anthony Migacz said he made every attempt not to violate the law and still received a warning letter on Oct. 8, 2009, for mislabeling shrimp products by increasing their bulk or weight with a frozen “marinade” glaze containing water, citric acid and salt, among other violations. The investigation has since been closed, but Migacz said he felt his company was not in violation of FDA rules.

Migacz said he bought 2-pound bags of marinated shrimp, which contained 1.6 pounds of shrimp and 0.4 pounds of the water, citric acid and salt mix. His company then opened the bags and repackaged them with a label that disclosed that the 20 percent marinade solution was included in the weight of the shrimp. Migacz said he wanted to make sure he was in compliance with FDA weight regulations so he showed the labels to FDA officials and got them approved.

“I have e-mails from the compliance office saying that’s OK, so I thought I was doing everything correctly,” Migacz said. However, in April 2009, he was inspected and told that he was violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Migacz said he is aware that adding the ice glaze to the weight of the seafood is illegal, but there are no regulations for marinated seafood. “The marinade is completely different because it has ingredients and it’s declared right on the label,” he said.

The bottom line, said FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle, is that consumers are paying for 2 pounds of shrimp when they are getting only 1.6 pounds. “We regulate the honest portrayal of the product that the consumer is getting,” Chappelle said.

After receiving the warning, Migacz returned the marinated shrimp to the supplier and he said he would no longer order it.

“It’s to the detriment of my company,” Migacz said, “because my competitors around the country are still buying it and selling it.”

Vietnam: Unqualified seafood for export on alarm

Vietnam News Summary
May 6, 2010

Along with facing the unrecovered export price and the material shortage, seafood companies also have to confront many difficulties when many Vietnam’s seafood shipments for export violated seriously the food quality standards in the first three months of 2010.

Through examining the residues of banned chemicals and antibiotic at enterprises, it showed that the main reason of Vietnam’s unqualified seafood came from the pre-processing period such as breeding, material preservation after catching. So, Vietnam is proposed to strengthen the supervision on import, distribution and usage of veterinary medicines.

Vietnam Association for Seafood Exporters and Processors (Vasep) reported that the number of Vietnamese seafood processors and exporters having good preparation for getting Certificate of Origin (C/O) and Global GAP of EU is very small.

In January-April, the country’s seafood export earned $1.2 billion dong including $350 million of April, growing by 17.4 percent year-on-year. EU continues leading Vietnam’s seafood buyers, followed by Japan and US. The target of seafood export turnover at $4.5 billion in 2010, a year-on-year growth of 7.1 percent can be reached but Vietnam could miss the target if not dealing with the aforementioned problem absolutely.