Catfish wars heat up over inspection feud

Mar 23, 2011. It’s not that they were clamoring for more oversight; the idea was that the new inspection system would be a roadblock to rival imports from Asia, which U.S. producers have long argued are unsafe.

But in a lesson on being careful what you ask for on Capitol Hill, the move may be backfiring, and the domestic industry could soon be trying to undo what it accomplished just a few years ago. In a worst-case scenario, the domestic farmers could end up stuck with the tougher new inspections while the imports they were hoping to suppress are left with the status quo.

A recent government audit cited the new catfish program and its $ 30 million price tag as a prime example of government waste and duplication. Lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are fighting to overturn it

“It’s everything that’s wrong about the food-safety system,” said David Acheson, a food-safety consultant and former assistant commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration. “It’s food politics. It’s not public health.”

Catfish is big business, among the most popular fish in the U.S. Until recently, the market was the exclusive province of U.S. producers, located mostly in Southern states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama.

A rise in cheaper Asian imports over the past decade, most recently from Vietnam, has fueled a series of “catfish wars” between domestic and foreign producers.

After winning tariffs and strict labeling restrictions against the Vietnamese fish, the U.S. industry pushed through what could be a death blow with the inspections law in the 2008 farm bill. The law made catfish the only seafood in the U.S. to fall under USDA’s purview, which traditionally has been meat and poultry. Seafood typically is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.

The change has potentially disastrous consequences for foreign catfish producers, because while the FDA does spot checks on a small sample of imports as they arrive, the USDA requires on-site inspections of production facilities. For countries like Vietnam, setting up an equivalent system could take years and effectively cripple their industry.

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