Big retailers like Wal-Mart are siding with Asian seafood companies against their American counterparts over the definition of catfish.


The dustup over the definition went public as USDA ended the public comment period on its takeover of catfish regulation and inspection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as called for in the 2008 Farm Bill.

At issue is whether USDA should take a broad or narrow view of what is a catfish.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, representing Wal-Mart and others, does not want such whitefish species as bass, saw and tar included in USDA’s catfish definition.

One of the “leaders” speaking out is Ana Hooper, a vice president of Darden Corp. — owners of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Capital Grill, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 — who called the proposal for a broader catfish regulations an “illogical proposal.” She said it puts millions into “a low risk food safety threat” rather than focusing on real threats.

Catfish Farmers of America wants broad inspection and regulation of all commercial catfish species imported or grown for sale to consumers in the United States.

The domestic catfish association says that if a narrow definition is used the majority of imported catfish would be exempt from the new catfish inspection and regulations rules, according to government data.

“We are asking USDA not to take a day longer than is absolutely necessary to finish writing and enforce these new consumer regulations, ” said Joey Lowery, who chairs the Catfish Farmers of America.  “We want all catfish to be as safe as possible for the American consumers as soon as possible.”

Catfish consumption in the U.S. is now dominated by foreign products, which have taken over in the past decade.

The Catfish Farmers claims seafood importers want their species excluded from USDA inspection because they will be unable to meet the health and safety regulations.

The Government  Accountability Office (GAO) in April said that only one-tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of all seafood imported into the U.S. was inspected for banned drugs in 2009.

The same report also said only 1.5 percent of Chinese seafood processing facilities were inspected by FDA in the last six years.

The almost non-existant inspection of foreign seafood stands in sharp control to that for meat and poultry. Those imports must come from facilities with standards and inspection equivalent to the daily and continuous inspection USDA proves for domestic meat and poultry.

The completed official comment period resulted in 335 items, including both comments and evidence, being filed with USDA.  The Catfish Farmers of America claim about 84 percent of the comment record favors its position.

The Office of the Trade Representative in the White House has opposed USDA catfish inspections out of fear of negatively impacting trade, especially with Vietnam.

USDA’s next move will be up to Secretary Vilsack.