The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) may have to get in the Catfish business.

It’s all part of a relentless campaign by the Catfish Farmers of America to get USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to inspect catfish as if it were beef, pork, or poultry.

“While many accusations have been leveled at the domestic catfish industry and its pursuit of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspections, the intent of the U.S. catfish industry has always been very clear–consumer safety,” says Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America.

Among the accusations to which Mr. Lowery refers is the observation that U.S. catfish farmers, located mostly in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, are skillfully using concern about food safety to build a hammer to smash foreign competition.

And one former top U.S. food safety official says shifting FSIS resources away from meat and poultry to cover fish would be a big mistake.

Nevertheless, catfish farmers who raised their catch in ponds are making headway on achieving their goal. 

The 2008 Farm Bill included provisions to move catfish regulations and inspections from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to FSIS.  The Secretary of Agriculture is left to decide how this will all be accomplished, including whether to apply the same standards to imported catfish as the standards currently required of U.S. pond-raised catfish.

Last summer, three top groups for consumers and food safety advocates enlisted in the Catfish Farmers of America campaign.  The Consumer Federation of America, Food and Water Watch, and Safe Tables Our Priority signed a joint letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“Consumers have good reason to demand imported catfish be raised and processed under similar safety standards as domestic catfish,” the groups wrote.

Most recently–last week–Catfish Farmers of America launched an advertising campaign around the theme, “All Catfish Should Be Treated Equally.”  “We’ve launched this campaign because of the urgency of this health and safety issue,” Lowery said.

The catfish group says only two percent of the 5.2 billion pounds of seafood produced last year were inspected by FDA.   However, it should be noted that imports are also under the regulatory and inspection regimes of the originating country.

Catfish farmers in the U.S. are mostly concerned about imports from Southeast Asian countries.  FDA currently turns back the highest percentage of shipments from these countries for failing to meet U.S. standards.

Ironically the Catfish Farmers of America uses reports of rejected catfish imports as evidence that FDA is failing to do its job.  It has encouraged states with catfish ponds to test for “drugs and chemicals in Asian fish imports.”

“To say that the FDA leaves U.S. consumers vulnerable is an understatement,” Lowery says.