Only in Washington D.C. can a rule to enforce the law be used as a tactic to delay doing anything.

But that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture did Friday when it announced a rule requiring inspection of catfish and catfish products.

On the surface, that might sound like the federal government was finally getting serious about implementing the 2008 Farm Bill’s language shifting catfish inspection to USDA’s Food safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Farm Bill contains law to make that shift in order to give catfish the same sort of continuous inspection that FSIS provides to beef, pork, and poultry.

But while the domestic catfish industry has long sought “amenable species” status under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, foreign sources of catfish see USDA inspection as a trade protection measure.

So, Obama Administration officials were acknowledging–at least off the record–that the real reason for the long delay in implementing the Farm Bill’s catfish requirements is concern about U.S. trade relations with Vietnam.

Vietnam’s seafood exports, including its catfish species, are expected to hit a record $5 billion in 2011.

USDA will not be doing any catfish inspections, but it will be accepting comments, through June 24, on possible rules for some future program. It wants opinions on two options for defining catfish.

“One option is the current labeling definition in the 2002 Farm Bill, which includes all species in the family Ictaluridae,” USDA said in a press release.  “The other option is to define catfish as all species in the order Siluriformes, including the three families typically founding human food channels, including letaluridae, Pangasiidae, and Clariidae.”

USDA said the proposed rule would apply to catfish produced in or imported to the U.S.  Catfish sold in the U.S. will require the FSIS mark of inspection, and that of its country of origin if exported.

The draft rules provide for the possibility of a “transition” period for both domestic and foreign catfish producers.  Asian producers see USDA’s plans for in-country inspection of catfish for export as taking too long to set up.  No money was requested for catfish inspection in teh Obama administration’s budget submission for 2011-12.

Comments must be received through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at; by mail to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, FSIS Docket Clerk, Room 2-2127, George Washington Carver Center, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Mailstop 5272, Beltsville, MD 20705; or by e-mail to 

All comments must identify FSIS and docket number FSIS-2008-0031. Comments will be available for viewing on the FSIS website at: 

In addition to a public comment period, FSIS intends to hold public meetings on the proposed rule, which will be announced at a later date.

  • doc raymond

    USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wrote a proposed rule for Catfish inspection and submitted it to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in a timely fashion, but it languished at OMB. OMB and the Office of the US Trade Representative are both basically arms of the Office of the President. USTR does feel the Catfish rule will cause serious trade implications and they are correct in that concern. Putting Catfish under the USDA and leaving all other seafood and fish with the FDA was a stupid mistake. Almost 80 % of the seafood and fish we eat are imported. If that makes them a health risk, then put them all under USDA for public health reasons rather than just Catfish to protect the Mississippi Catfish farmers.
    But do not blame USDA for proposing a rule change to define Catfish more clearly. That delay tactic is coming directly from OMB and the President, right or wrong.

  • Jeanne McKnight

    I agree 100 percent with Doc Raymond. It should be all or nothing. one more note here: I’ve visited the farms and plants in Vietnam and have been working in seafood marketing for more than 25 years. Imported seafood is not making people sick. USDA? The folks that inspect hamburger? THIS IS NOT A FOOD SAFETY ISSUE. This addition to the 2008 Farm Bill came from domestic catfish farmers (the same ones who made Vietnam change the “catfish name” to Pangasius because they didn’t want the competition) who say that they can’t compete with “foreign” seafood. So they are manipulating the US regulatory process to create a non-tariff barrier–a way to keep Vietnam’s fish from entering the USA. In an era of concern over the budget, do we really need to see the federal government spend so much time and energy fixing something that “ain’t broke”?