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.