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.