If food safety put catfish under USDA inspection, can shrimp be far behind? That question is coming into focus this week after one of USDA’s top two food safety officials told a gathering of food policy wonks on Tuesday that the final rule for the agency’s takeover of catfish inspections is coming “a little into May.” And tomorrow, the focus will turn to the alleged dangers and the light testing of foreign shrimp. Brian Ronholm, one of the two deputy under secretaries of food safety at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), told attendees at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., that the final catfish rule “is virtually done” and likely to emerge from FSIS by early May. USDA had previously said it was expected in April, but Ronholm said the timing “might bleed a little into May.” catfish_406x250Ronholm, who shares his food safety title with Al Almanza, said existing FSIS personnel will be shifted to handle the catfish inspections. Little else is known outside USDA on how catfish will actually be inspected by the agency. In recent times, no issue advanced in the name of food safety has come in for more criticism than moving catfish inspections from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to USDA’s inspection portfolio. Skeptics of the move — such as U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — are concerned because the switch actually sets up “dual jurisdiction” between USDA and FDA. Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents the imported seafood industry, is quick to point out that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “has called the USDA catfish program a waste 9 times” and each time called upon Congress to repeal it. “It was put in place as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, and (USDA) has spent more than $20 million tax dollars and never inspected a single fish,” Gibbons told Food Safety News. “Yet imported and domestic catfish and catfish-like species are just as safe as they were before the program was implemented.” Whether it’s catfish or pangasius, a cousin mostly raised in Vietnam, the flaky white fish is now the sixth most popular seafood in the U.S. Domestic catfish farmers first pushed back their imported competition in 2002 by getting Congress to prohibit the Asian products from being called “catfish.” The coming USDA catfish inspections have Asian interests such as the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers mighty concerned. That’s because the move could shut Vietnamese pangasius out of the U.S. market entirely, at least for a while. Vietnam would then have to win certification that its food safety system for the fish is equal to that provided by USDA, just as is now required for those who want to export meat, poultry or eggs to the U.S. U.S. catfish farmers, who have seen the amount of catfish sold to processors decline in 2012 to a little more than 300 million pounds, or 360 million pounds less than 10 years earlier, would welcome being without the competition, even for a time. (Most of the U.S. catfish industry is found in Mississippi, which led the nation in farm-raised catfish in 2013 with 275 catfish farms and sales valued at $179.2 million.) Imports dominate the American seafood diet, and shrimp might be the next species coming in for special attention. Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports (CR), will be out Friday with a new report on frozen shrimp. Imports of that product now account for 94 percent of U.S. consumption. The report is embargoed, but CR’s concerns about foreign shrimp are great enough that it will recommend that its readers buy only “responsibly-caught” U.S. wild shrimp “when possible.” It will also point to how rare FDA inspections are of imported shrimp, a criticism catfish farmers have often made about their foreign competition. Just the notice of the embargoed report was enough to send NFI’s Gibbons to his Twitter account to begin one of his well-known counter-offensives. “We’ve been tweeting about this pending Consumer Reports story, which of course we can’t comment on until we see, but I can tell you that Consumer Reports has an abysmal track record of reporting on seafood,” Gibbons said. “You’ll remember the Food and Drug Administration blasted Consumer Reports for its August seafood report on tuna, calling CR’s methodology flawed because it overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade. I am eager to see what level of hyperbole they employ this time,” he said. As for shrimp following catfish down the inspection road, Gibbons does not see it happening. “The only thing the two items have in common is that anti-competition groups have hijacked a food safety narrative and hoodwinked some into believing this is not about excluding imports from the U.S. market,” he said. The NFI spokesman also wonders why CR takes such an “overtly protectionist” stance on shrimp, but not foreign cars and electronics. Support by outside groups for USDA catfish inspection has waned over time, especially as the GAO reports have made the duel jurisdiction issue a prime example of government duplication and waste. However, that’s not to say that catfish is without its own food safety challenges. Auburn University’s College of Agriculture says disease control accounts for 45 percent of the annual catfish losses the farms experience. Most U.S. catfish are raised in earthen ponds with high densities, an environment that allows for the rapid spread of infectious bacteria and the acute outbreaks of diseases that do occur. “The most important infectious diseases for catfish are Enteric Septicemia (ESC) and Columnaris disease,” Auburn reports. “The causal agents for these diseases are Edwardsiella ictaluri and Flavobacterium columnare, respectively.” The university recommends that catfish farmers take steps to avoid expensive losses from the two diseases by using a few cost-effective drugs and improved husbandry practices. Past domestic catfish losses from disease have run as high as $100 million a year. For its part, the U.S. catfish industry continues to pound the drum against “the quality of controversial Vietnamese pangasius,” often sold as basa, tra, and swai. Through the Jackson, MS-based Catfish Institute, the industry is quick to share dispatches about “plummeting” pangasius exports to Europe because of poor quality or a wire service report on slavery and coerced labor in Asian seafood production. Those pangasius exports to the U.S. are now valued at more than $300 million a year, according to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first reported March 23, 2015, in the Wall Street Journal. While domestic production was cut in half, 215 million pounds of frozen Asian “catfish” was sold in the U.S. last year, compared to just 7 million pounds 10 years earlier. Most of Vietnam’s pangasius comes from the Mekong River Delta. The stricter USDA regulations on catfish are all but certain to come up in the ongoing negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade treaty.