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Congress hails FSIS for blocking 272 tons of bad foreign catfish

The July 3 publication of the Federal Register made it official. Importers and brokers of catfish were put on notice about USDA’s Food Safety and inspection Service’s plans to reinspect all shipments of imported Siluriformes fish and fish products beginning Aug. 2.

Congress came up with the idea because lawmakers like the job FSIS is doing.

Workers kill pangasius catfish before transfering them to the next processing line in a seafood factory in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Photo © Jamesbox/Dreamstime.com

Shipments of catfish species will be presented at official import inspection establishments for reinspection by FSIS personnel. Also on Aug. 2, FSIS will begin taking action on imported catfish that has managed to bypass import reinspection, but entered commerce nonetheless. These are called “failure to present” violations.

The additional requirement is being imposed just one month before the end of the 18-month transition period before full enforcement of foreign and domestic catfish inspection by FSIS takes effect on Sept. 1. On that date, outlined in the final rule published on Dec. 2, 2015, for the mandatory inspection of “fish of the order of Silurifomes,” countries that export catfish species and their products to the United States will be required to use a self-reporting tool (SRT) and document the equivalence of their inspection systems to that of FSIS.

The foreign countries and establishments listed on the FSIS website as eligible must submit a complete SRT and supporting documentation by Sept.1 to continue exporting Siluriformes fish to the U.S., according to FSIS. The agency says it is encouraging importers and brokers to communicate and coordinate closely with their foreign business partners, inspection establishments, and FSIS district offices in advance of the full compliance deadline.

FSIS has worked during the transition with foreign countries who wish to continue exporting Siluriformes fish to the U.S.

The job of inspecting catfish has long been a controversial one. In the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, Congress called for shifting the responsibility from the Food and Drug Administration to FSIS. Domestic catfish farmers sought the change because only about 1 percent to 2 percent of foreign catfish was being physically inspected by FDA and those imports were coming to dominate the market.

The sometimes slow-moving FSIS, however, came under criticism for spending millions to study catfish inspection while not doing any actual inspection, foreign or domestic. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) did reports pointing out the duplication and cost.

In 2015, however, FSIS and FDA completed a Memorandum of Understanding that permanently sent catfish inspection to the USDA’s subagency and a short time later, on March 1, 2016, the 18-month transition period began. The Senate still voted to send catfish inspection back to FDA, but the House never took up the change, leaving catfish inspections with USDA.

The latest Congressional action came in the 2017 Appropriations Act, which in an explanatory statement directs FSIS to begin the reinspections of all imported catfish and catfish products. In appropriating $1.032 billion for FSIS for fiscal year beginning Oct. 1,  Congress said it “recognizes FSIS’ diligent work in preventing from entering or removing 547,928 pounds (more than 273 tons) of adulterated or ineligible imported Siluriformes product from U.S. commerce since April 15, 2016.”

It then added, saying: “In light of these alarming findings, the agreement directs FSIS to reinspect all imported Siluriformes fish and fish product shipments, just as all imported meat and poultry products from equivalent countries that export product to the United States are reinspected, upon the date of enactment of this Act.”

“The agreement also directs FSIS to complete a determination of equivalence for the Siluriformes inspection program in a foreign country exporting Siluriformes fish and fish products to the United States not later than 180 days after the end of the 18-month transition period described in the preamble of the final rule entitled ‘Mandatory Inspection of Fish of the Order Siluriformes and Products Derived From Such Fish’ issued on Dec. 2, 2015,” according to the statement.

FSIS has been selecting shipments of Siluriformes for reinspection and residue testing since April 15, 2016.

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