After the 2008 Farm Bill moved the responsibility for catfish inspection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the two agencies did not play nice with one another. Before long, USDA catfish inspection turned into a poster child for government duplication and wasteful spending. Millions were spent, both agencies had responsibilities, and no catfish really got inspected. So, in the new 2014 Farm Bill, Congress decided to do something about it and included new language ordering FDA and FSIS to play nice and share their toys. New language inserted in the new Farm Bill mandates FSIS and FDA to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to improve interagency cooperation and prevent duplication. FDA has now announced that it has successfully entered into a MOU with FSIS and posted it all on the government’s website. In the announcement, FDA said the agreement covers Siluriformes fish and fish products, including commercial catfish, basa and pangasius. The Catfish Farmers of America have not said anything publicly about the new MOU, but the organization behind moving catfish inspection to USDA is known to be pleased with the agreement. “Food safety remains the industry’s singular driver in supporting FSIS inspection of catfish,” says a CFA insider. “Critics argued that both FSIS and FDA would be inspecting catfish, and this MOU is another step in ensuring that congressional intent to avoid duplication is carried out.” The agreement, signed by FSIS Administrator Alfred V. Almanza and FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Director Michael M. Landa, commits the two agencies to:

  • Plan for an orderly, phased transition of primary regulatory authority over catfish and catfish-like products.
  • Follow already existing procedures for dual jurisdiction establishments. Such facilities are those than prepare, pack, hold, and otherwise handle both catfish and other fish products.
  • Coordinate issuing catfish-related guidance and regulation.
  • Agree that all other fish will remain FDA’s regulatory responsibility.

The Indianola, MS-based CFA has long claimed that 98 percent of the imported seafood against which its domestic product competes comes into the country without any inspection. For the past decade, it has worked to bring all catfish species under USDA inspection, and domestic catfish producers see the quick agreement by FSIS and FDA as signifying that the agencies are now committed to the transfer. Not all are so sure. The National Association of State Directors of Agriculture said that several seafood groups, some of which did not think the MOU could be “a final resolution to the issue” were allowed to review a draft of the agreement. Most U.S. farm-raised catfish are produced in the Gulf states. CFA claims the catfish and catfish-like species raised in Southeast Asia enter the U.S. with virtually no safety inspection and depress markets for the domestic catch. The Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Right banned imports of Vietnam’s catfish-like pangasius last Jan. 31 after it found E. coli and listeria in fish products from 16 out of 35 exporting fish farms. Russia has not yet lifted that ban.