Earlier this month Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran sent a letter to Rebecca Blank, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, asking that the Department “vigorously enforce the antidumping order against frozen fish fillets from Vietnam.” The fish Cochran is concerned about is catfish, and his concerns are not new.  Every year for more than a decade, the U.S. catfish industry has lost market share to Vietnamese importers who can produce and sell their product at much cheaper rates. The change was noticeable and steady each year, but, as the senators’ letter points out, the market has seen a drastic shift since 2008. Vietnamese imports now take up more than 75 percent of the U.S. market – three times more than in 2008. That flip-flop is a result of a number of factors, most notably that American catfish farmers are leaving the business in droves. In 2007, catfish were raised on 164,000 water acres (the vast majority located in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana). Today, the acreage used for catfish farming is 83,020. What is an antidumping order? The Department of Commerce (DOC) will issue an antidumping order after it, along with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), determines that an imported product is materially harming a U.S. industry by being dumped, or heavily subsidized, by the importing nation (and being sold at less than fair value). As a result, the DOC will enforce a tariff on the imported product with the goal of leveling the playing field shared by U.S. competitors. The DOC and ITC first issued antidumping orders for frozen catfish fillet in 2003. Then, after a five-year review, ITC renewed its support of the order to prevent “the continuation or recurrence of material injury” to the U.S. catfish industry. Despite ITC’s determination, tariffs on Vietnamese fish have been negligible, and in March 2012, DOC issued its seventh final administrative review of the catfish antidumping order, concluding that tariffs on imported Vietnamese catfish should continue at zero percent for Vinh Hoan Group (the largest catfish importer), and several other importers would be subject to a $0.03/kg tax rate. The tariffs set by DOC are not based on Vietnamese market conditions because DOC considers Vietnam to be a “non-market economy.”  To make tariff determinations, DOC uses surrogate countries, such as Bangladesh, to analyze antidumping orders and set tariff levels. Senator Cochran’s letter to the DOC will be considered during the Department’s eighth administrative review, which is due later this year. “They’re looking for some fairness here for a U.S. industry, and the Department should be looking to protect a US industry by using better surrogate country comparisons than they have been using,” said Chris Gallegos, a spokesman for Senator Cochran, in an interview with Food Safety News. “The hardships and the decline of the U.S. catfish industry are in plain numbers.” Congressional attempts to differentiate U.S. farm-raised catfish Since the industry was first threatened by Vietnamese imports, Congress has repeatedly gone to bat for catfish. In a 2001 appropriations bill, Congress passed a law mandating that only catfish produced in North America may be labeled as “catfish.”  The Vietnamese fish, Pangasius, subsequently became known as Basa, Tra or Swai. In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress created the Trade Adjustment Assistance for Farmers program to help commodity farmers, including catfish farmers, who have been adversely affected by imports. Also in the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress gave USDA authority to regulate country of origin labeling, which required retailers to label the country of origin on packaging for fish, shellfish, beef, pork and other products. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) has been in the news a lot over the last year due to a World Trade Organization dispute between Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua and the United States, regarding labeling of beef and pork products (here is an update from Food Safety News from last week). That dispute does not involve catfish labeling, and all COOL regulations are in place today. The 2008 Farm Bill gave the USDA responsibility for imported catfish by creating an Office of Catfish Inspection Program (OCIP) within the agency’s Food Safety Inspection Service.  Previously, FDA was responsible for catfish, as it is responsible for all other seafood inspection.  Because of the switch from one agency to another, catfish producers would go from infrequent inspections every few years to daily inspections, similar to U.S.-produced meat. However, USDA catfish inspection regulations have never been issued, and OCIP may be headed for the chopping block as Congress looks for programs to cut in the next version of the Farm Bill. Jeff McCord, a spokesman for The Catfish Institute, said he isn’t sure whether the catfish inspection program will ever become a reality. “The implementation has been a slow process, and we know that seafood importers and the government of Vietnam have been lobbying heavily against implementation,” McCord said in an interview with Food Safety News.  “I believe at least one piece of legislation has been introduced that would eliminate the USDA’s role, and the Senate’s version of the new Farm Bill [from 2012 that was never passed by the House] would have eliminated the USDA’s role and send it back purely to the FDA.” The Government Accountability Office does not believe the USDA should be in charge of catfish inspection, however, as made clear in this May 2012 report, titled Responsibility for inspecting catfish should not be assigned to USDA. Following up on that statement, just last week, GAO labeled OCIP – for the second time – as a high risk program “that would result in duplication of federal programs and cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually without enhancing the safety of catfish intended for human consumption.” What do we know about Vietnamese Catfish? As of now, Congress’s attempts to distinguish U.S.-raised catfish from catfish-like imports have not stemmed the tide of Vietnamese Basa into the American market. So what do we know about this imported fish? Both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and GAO have recently examined the food safety issues surrounding the imported food market, and found fish to be a top concern. A CDC report from March 2012 that looked at outbreaks and illnesses linked to imported food showed that 17 of the 39 outbreaks linked to food from foreign sources between 2005 and 2010 were from seafood, and that 45 percent of those outbreaks were linked to food imported from Asia. A GAO report from April 2011 looked at the prevalence of imported farm-raised fish in the U.S. market, and concluded that FDA should “study the feasibility of adopting practices used by other entities to better ensure the safety of imported seafood,” and to “enhance its import sampling program.” FDA is responsible for regulating food safety for all imported seafood, including catfish.  One of the concerns about aquaculture is the presence of residue from unapproved antibiotics used by farmers to treat diseases.  Each year, FDA inspects foreign seafood facilities and seafood importers looking for such residue. According to the GAO report, “from 2005 through 2010, FDA inspected, on average, 84 foreign processing facilities annually out of an estimated 17,000 worldwide.” Additionally, “FDA inspected, on average, 217 importers annually out of about 3,900 importers registered with the FDA.” FDA also has authority to reject imported seafood if it fails to comply with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  Each month, FDA provides a list of import refusals, which the Catfish Institute has been tracking for years. In the first 11 months of 2011, 173 million pounds of Pangasius was imported into the U.S., with the FDA refusing imports 10 times.  In the same period of 2012, Pangasius imports totaled 202 million pounds, with 15 FDA refusals. According to the Catfish Institute, those FDA import refusals were based on presence of the following dangerous substances: Malachite green (banned by FDA), Crystal Violet (a.k.a. gentian violet), Nitrofurans (antimicrobial drug banned by FDA in food-producing animals); Flouroquinolone antibiotics (banned by FDA in food); and Melamine. “It’s pretty shocking, actually,” McCord said.  “We’ve been following it for years, and it’s routine now that these substances have been found year in and year out, and nothing changes.  It’s the same old stuff.” From the GAO report: “In fiscal year 2009, the seafood samples FDA reported it collected for drug residue testing amounted to 0.1 percent of all the seafood products imported into the United States.” “It’s an outrageous situation, and a threat to public health,” McCord said.  “We believe it’s time for the federal government to increase inspections, whether it’s the FDA or the USDA. The American public deserves protection.” If FDA is aware of contamination in foreign catfish, and country of origin labeling is required for imported catfish, why does Vietnamese Pangasius still make up more than 75 percent of the U.S. catfish market? “The federal government does require all seafood to be labeled in grocery stores and supermarkets as to country of origin,” McCord said.  “However, restaurants have no such requirement and restaurants are where 70 percent of Americans eat their catfish.”  “That is where most of the Pangasius goes,” McCord added.  “And there is a consistent and persistent problem with mislabeling of Pangasius as U.S. catfish in many cases.  For example, we’ve had instances where menus have said delta catfish, and it turns out to be Vietnamese Pangasius.  It didn’t come from the Mississippi Delta, it came from the Mekong Delta.”  Regardless of which fish the federal government decides to call catfish, and regardless of how it is labeled, U.S. catfish farmers are losing the battle for American consumers.  If Senator Cochran’s plea for better treatment by the Department of Commerce goes unheeded, and the USDA catfish inspection office is closed before it ever opens, the U.S. catfish industry may have to go back to the drawing board to find a way to stay afloat.