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Does Imported Catfish Pose a Health Risk?

More than 90 percent of the catfish imported to the United States originates in Vietnam, a country that has become the largest competitor to U.S. Delta region catfish farmers.

An international government debate over the catfish trade is ongoing.  Under the 2008 Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed amending regulations for both domestic and imported catfish to protect food safety and strengthen domestic and international trade regulations.  

Two varieties of Vietnamese catfish subject to the new regulations are Swai (Tra) and Basa.   Both varieties are widely farmed in Vietnam, and many consider the fillets a delicacy, as they are wider and thinner in appearance than catfish farmed by U.S. catfish farmers.  In 2002, the Federal Government ruled that Vietnamese varieties of Basa fish could not be called catfish.  In 2009 the named changed to Swai (an alternate name for Tra). 

Regardless of name, Vietnamese Swai and Basa are not subject to the same inspections as other imported catfish because these fish are not considered catfish.

All catfish must meet strict inspection requirements.  Among the health and safety concerns associated with Vietnamese catfish are issues such as polluted water and the use of antiquarian facilities.  American catfish farmers have taken action to draw awareness to these issues and have developed a coalition which produced a marketing campaign calling American catfish “the safe choice” catfish.  

In the meantime, Vietnam catfish farmers and other international exporters of fish need to show proof that the water used to farm fish is safe and unpolluted and provide observational data related to their farming practices in order to meet American food safety requirements.  The issue of tracking is essential to allow country of origin to be traced if a food safety issue were to occur in the United States.

Under the revisions are rules that Vietnamese catfish producers are required to have their product inspected and tested.  U.S. fishmongers have been lobbying for new policy, claiming imported catfish pose a potential health risk.

The U.S. proposed moving inspections of imported catfish from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to that of the USDA; however, the State Department, trade officials, and members of Congress are critical of the plan and have articulated their feelings that international catfish farmers are being unlawfully targeted.  Some worry that the action could impose trade feuds.

International agreements on food inspections typically take between two to five years to negotiate, and switching the agency responsible for inspections could bar international trade while negotiations are conducted.  The change proposed by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is to coincide with provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill legislation.

The rules have been under review at the Office of Management with the proposed review date indefinite.

Seafood consumption in the United States exceeds 4.9 billion pounds annually; of this figure, 83 percent is imported.  Advocates argue that the U.S. needs clearly defined laws to protect consumers from environmental contamination and chemicals that could be present on imported seafood and say consumers have the right to know whether imported catfish is farmed and processed under the same food safety guidelines as domestically raised catfish.

© Food Safety News
  • Carol Pelfrey

    American Catfish Farmers – Why isn’t the U.S. trying to back them? I just saw John Brewers, I believe, comment that the American consumer doesn’t need to worry about foreign catfish -it’s safe. Where has this man been! China manufactured tainted baby food, dog food, toys in kids meals were found to be dangerous as well as lead found in the “green” shopping bags, just to name a few.
    Vietnam Swai and Basa fish aren’t subject to testing because they’re not considered a catfish??? What a way to bypass our regulations!
    If 4.9 billion pounds of fish is consumed annually and 83% is imported, I think our government needs to enforce the same regulation requirements our American catfish producers are obligated to follow, which is a safeguard for the consumer’s health.
    I do not purchase any food product if it is not made in the U.S.A. because foreign companies get by without following the same regulations our own companies have to.

    • Annie K

      Well your lumping China and all of SE Asia together and each country should be judged on an individual merit don’t you think?  It seems borderline racist to lump all these countries together.  Anyhow, yes, regulations should be more strict on all foods in general but before you get all hot and bothered about international foods, look into all food regulation as a whole here in the US.  The things that go into our food are terribly scary.  Pink slime?  I would google that because that’s legal in the US and is a common additive to beef.  Speaking of beef, do you know what cows are given in their lifetime before they end up on our tables?  Yes, I would say be wary of certain types of fish coming out of certain countries but don’t make such a rash decision based on one ill cited article.  http://www.chefs-resources.com/Is-Vietnamese-Swai-and-Basa-Safe cites several studies that conclude that information disseminated by the American Catfish Farmers was propaganda based and not fact based.  Sure, we should support our local farmers, we should support all local business, which means we should probably not shop at any place that outsources labor or has raw goods come from outside countries instead of right here in the US. Foreign cars, electronics… those things would have to be boycotted too not to mention the many foods we do not grow in abundance here in the US… like oranges or strawberries in winter time… do you go without fruit all winter or do you buy things grown in Mexico or Central and South America like most people do?  Its a global world, lets be responsible but not ignorant.  

  • Paul Breitfeld

    Food imports from Vietnam probably contain residual Agent Orange and other dioxins present in the ground and water. Tests have shown that many people in Vietnam are still getting diseases that are attributed to the chemicals we used in the 60′s.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.neal.1232 Bruce Neal

      I support US catfish farmers, Period !!

      • Lao Tzi

        good luck for getting rip off

  • margaret

    what is the true information about basa safty i keep reading of the poluted waters of viet naim and by eating this fish ca n cause serious illness the chemicals used in the feeding pellets has been known to cause cancer in mice please reply

  • cleareyes

    The domestic catfish lobby got a concession in the 2002 Farm Bill that Vietnamese catfish could no longer be called catfish. Now they are lobbying to require Vietnamese catfish to be called catfish. Can you say “Make up your mind?”

  • Jolene8992

    I’m throwing out my bag of swai, and never purchasing again. Not testing? Really?

  • trueb0b

    The usual reasons:  It has better flavor, appearance and is half the price.

  • http://twitter.com/JoanTV Joan E TV

    I’ve eaten it 6 times and I’m OK

  • Jerry Vanek

    Burton writes, “The U.S. proposed moving inspections of imported catfish from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to that of the USDA” but doesn’t explain why. If the FDA is that terrible at inspecting catfish, why do we allow it to continue to inspect any other food? It makes little sense.

  • Chris Black

    Well to tell you the truth of the matter , all the time I am hearing of all the bad things that are in our food … how chicken and pigs are raised and then killed for us to eat …all the antibiotic’s and hormones that are fed to all of our meat ,cows and all of them .. Really unless you grow your own food and livestock , and make sure what they are fed ,…NOTHING IS SAFE TO EAT … and people of other countries never had cancers until they started to eat like Americans … Americans are the sickest on the earth because of diets here … People are getting overweight because of what they put in the food ,and because of all the junk they eat … Now maybe this is true about the fish i do not doubt it at all …now everyone has a choice to eat what they chose to eat , but i think before you say anything remember when you go out to eat, do you ask where it came from ? most do not !!!.. We have to eat and some of us do not have alot of money ,so when we want to eat the best we can , sometimes we have to eat the fish within our price and then DIE!!!!.. HAVE A GREAT DAY … AND GrAb a HaPpY ThOuGhT!!!

  • eddiejazz25

    though i think it better to always support our american fish farmers,we shoulld not resort to negative propaganda to do it just do it because we are americans.why do we always feel the need to always point out the negative in others or put others down to make ourselves feel bigger?some of thew meats and other foods produced right here in america are deplorable and filthy.theres no regard forf human life only profit.

    • Lao Tzi

      well said
      For the benefits of the consumers, fair competitions should be the way to go, not killing the competitors through lobbying. Wake up America!

  • Lao Tzi

    Catfish Farmers of USA should adjust the price and make it more competitive instead of lobbying the government to rid of its competitors. This is bad news for consumers.

  • swai-fish.com

    Swai fish (also called Basa fish) is a freshwater fish without scales, and their fins are grey or dark. This fish is a type of catfish, which many people refer to as the shark catfish.

    Swai fish has a milder flavor and more delicate texture than the channel catfish in the US. They have moist, sweet, mild flavored flesh with a beige color which turns white after cooking.

    And see the recipes with swai fish here: http://swai-fish.com/category/swai-fish-recipes/

  • Yorktown

    Swai fish are farm raised on human excrement in ponds that smell like well human excrement. Farmers must wear masks and gloves. You would get very ill if you ingest this water. These fish are bottom feeders. As soon as the water is clear enough to see fish they throw more shit into the pond.