Earlier this week, the Department of Agriculture held a series of public hearings addressing a controversial regulation regarding catfish importations. Until fairly recently, catfish had been inspected for drug residue or other contamination by the Food and Drug Administration. However, the FDA inspections had been criticized as ineffective. In 2008, Congress shifted responsibility to the USDA, giving them a broad mandate to inspect whatever species they deemed necessary.
The controversy arose from trade agreements entered into between the United States and various catfish exporting nations. At question with the USDA inspections is whether they will apply to all catfish species or just those species typically imported into the United States. Trade officials and lobbyists for foreign trade organizations argue that the selective inspection by the USDA represents American protectionism and an unfair hurdle imposed on foreign exporters.
However, politicians, many from catfish producing states, argued that the ultimate goal of the inspections was food safety not trade barriers. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) argued that the FDA’s inspections were limited and that it made sense to give the USDA the authority to inspect and protect agricultural imports. “Americans must be able to trust that the food they purchase in restaurants and at grocery stores is of the highest quality,” he said. Others, like Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) argued that trade concerns should never trump safety concerns and that the American people deserved to know that their food is safe.
Also at issue was the danger posed by catfish contamination. Some trade officials claimed that Chinese and Vietnamese catfish did not pose a serious contaminant threat. However, professors from the University of Arkansas testified that the conditions at catfish farms in counties like Vietnam are often subpar, with fish often swimming in sewage and toxic runoff.
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Written by: Justin Ellison / Farm Plus Staff Writer