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Letter From The Editor: Catfish

Early during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I found myself in a small Mississippi take-out restaurant nearing the order counter while still reading the menu when I noticed there was a “Catfish Po Boy” on the menu.

Suddenly it was my turn, so I asked: “Domestic catfish?”

“There is no other kind, Hon,” I was told.

I was not disappointed with my choice.  It got me thinking that if the oil spill killed all the other seafood, the Gulf States still would have their catfish.

Gulf seafood is coming back, and the domestic catfish catch is having a good year.   About 360 million pounds processed through September and the price paid in September to producers was 81.6 cents per pound, up 4.4 cents from a year ago.

U.S. catfish farmers cannot help but think it could be a better year if the current administration in Washington D.C. would have simply enacted the 2008 Farm Bill as written.

That bill, which was signed into  law on June 18, 2008, amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act to designate catfish as defined by the Secretary of Agriculture as an “amenable species.”

The bill gave USDA 18 months to enact the new law, and the ramp-up period ended on Dec. 18, 2009.   Since that date, catfish should have been subjected to mandatory inspection just as meat, poultry and eggs are today; and USDA should have gone through the rule-making process to define catfish.

USDA has done a little fiddling, but not much more.  Now, it’s worth noting that there was a genuine debate prior to when Congress passed the catfish law.  

Some respected food safety administrators said this debate was nothing more than a ruse to erect a trade barrier for the benefit of domestic catfish producers, who are mostly in Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi.  Other food safety advocates, including some of the activists, favored catfish inspection by USDA.

Now this little drama has been playing out week-by-week, mostly below the radar.  It took another turn last week when the Catfish Farmers of America took to the TV airwaves asking consumers in the name of food safety to urge President Obama to enact the catfish law.

“I feel the hold up is attributed to bureaucratic delays in every agency and ultimately it is the responsibility of the Obama Administration to respond to Congress and move this important food safety issue forward, CFA President Joey Lowery told Food Safety News. “Currently it is par for the course that being the Obama Administration is facing a systemic problem of all talk and no action.”

CFA’s timing in going up with TV time two weeks before the election was solely because of  “the bureaucratic logjam in the executive branch,” Lowery said.  

“The majority of the public has no idea about the current protocol in seafood inspection and it is my hope they will demand better when they find out the facts,” he said.

With questionable conditions in Vietnam and China, where much of the foreign catfish is produced, Lowery says U.S. catfish farmers are worried about the economic damages they might suffer if there is a food safety crisis.

“The overall catfish industry–both domestic and imported–is as only strong as it’s weakest link,” he says.  

“When you have a segment of the industry producing substandard products–especially when their practices raise food safety concerns and potentially these concerns start to surface–then this will kill the market for both domestic and imported catfish. We are worried about potential economic fallout that we are not at fault.”

My take is this is an argument that Joey Lowery should not have to make.  This debate was over when Congress passed the Farm Bill.  President Obama and Secretary Vilsack take oaths to administer the laws Congress enacts.  They need to get cracking.  Now.

© Food Safety News
  • I couldn’t agree with you more, Dan.
    Here’s another example of one of Washington’s two primary food regulators not fulfilling its responsibilities under existing law.
    When regulators and the Administration supervising them can, with impunity, enforce ONLY those laws which they like and ignore those they don’t, there is no rule of law only a charade. Bush got away with it and now Obama is.
    Sen. Coburn (R-OK) is absolutely correct that Congress is NOT fulfilling its responsibility under the checks and balances so artfully created in our Constitution.
    The new Congress needs to focus on bi-partisan, transparent, honest investigations that hold bureaucrats accountable when they don’t enforce the law of the land.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more, Dan.
    Here’s another example of one of Washington’s two primary food regulators not fulfilling its responsibilities under existing law.
    When regulators and the Administration supervising them can, with impunity, enforce ONLY those laws which they like and ignore those they don’t, there is no rule of law only a charade. Bush got away with it and now Obama is.
    Sen. Coburn (R-OK) is absolutely correct that Congress is NOT fulfilling its responsibility under the checks and balances so artfully created in our Constitution.
    The new Congress needs to focus on bi-partisan, transparent, honest investigations that hold bureaucrats accountable when they don’t enforce the law of the land.

  • Harrison Davies

    The real question that is unanswered or even explored in this letter is whether USDA’s system is “better” than FDA’s. Were there evidence of such, perhaps this endorsement of overtly protectionist political lobbying by a special interest group would have merit. Without such evidence this reeks of so much of that trade based rhetoric disguised as food safety.

  • Nate Paulson

    Talk about a disappointing choice. Food Safety News weighs in on the side of a group that uses food safety as a lobbying tool? I’d expect fancy TV commercials to snow a consumer or two, or even a pandering politician but people who write and research the facts about food safety every day? That’s really disappointing.

  • Tom Paine

    Hello? These catfish guys started this saga in 2002 by lobbying loudly that certain imports weren’t catfish. Then in 2008 they started saying they were catfish because it may benefit them under a new regulatory scheme. At the same time today they are still lobbying in some state houses that they are NOT catfish. Come on, these guys are a joke and Food Safety News thinks they’ve made their case and should be given the regulatory keys to the protectionist castle.

  • Charles Dooley

    I wonder if anyone at Food Safety News read Dr. Richard Raymond’s thoughts on this issue? The former undersecretary of agriculture wrote, “this is not a public health issue, it is a trade issue.”

  • Here’s a little nugget that I wonder if the editors at Food Safety News (FSN) ever considered the irony of?
    Marler Clark, who publishes FSN, represents clients in litigation against restaurants and food companies whose food was identified as the source of illness. In fact Bill Marler made quite a name for himself when he represented a nine-year-old Seattle girl (who recovered after suffering kidney failure) and many other victims of the Jack in the Box E. coli poisoning case. That was back in the 90ies.
    Now, the publication that his firm publishes is endorsing the U.S. catfish farmers and their rhetoric riddled, special interest driven lobbying efforts to switch certain imported seafood species to USDA in order to erect a trade barrier, not protect public health.
    In endorsing that effort a Marler Clark publication endorses a campaign run by (Sanderson Strategies) the very folks who brag about having successfully focused attention away from their client Jack in the Box and on onto “demands for a government standard for cooking meat.”
    A publication whose parent company fought tooth and nail to focus on the food safety failures of Jack in the Box now endorses the group whose strategy successfully focused attention away from the food safety failures of Jack in the Box.
    Curious.

  • danflynn

    We are always happy to hear from Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute. Gavin, next time, introduce yourself and tell the folks where you sit before you tell them where you stand.
    It is no secret that Food Safety News is sponsored by Marler Clark, LLP. Most folks figure that out on their own since we say so in big black and red letters at the top of this news website. But feel free to tell ’em again Gavin. Yes, let the secret out, Bill Marler is the nation’s best known and most successful food safety attorney.
    As which pr firms were involved in what past campaigns, I’m falling asleep. Let go back to the nut of the issue. We were not endorsing or taking sides in anybody’s campaign cause as far as we can tell it’s over. We had friends on both sides.
    My point was pretty simple. Once Congress legally passes a law in this country, the Executive branch has the responsibility of enacting it.

  • Dan Flynn

    We are always happy to hear from Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute. Gavin, next time, introduce yourself and tell the folks where you sit before you tell them where you stand.
    It is no secret that Food Safety News is sponsored by Marler Clark, LLP. Most folks figure that out on their own since we say so in big black and red letters at the top of this news website. But feel free to tell ’em again Gavin. Yes, let the secret out, Bill Marler is the nation’s best known and most successful food safety attorney.
    As which pr firms were involved in what past campaigns, I’m falling asleep. Let go back to the nut of the issue. We were not endorsing or taking sides in anybody’s campaign cause as far as we can tell it’s over. We had friends on both sides.
    My point was pretty simple. Once Congress legally passes a law in this country, the Executive branch has the responsibility of enacting it.