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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

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.


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.

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.”

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.