Long-awaited U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) catfish inspections, mandated by Farm Bills since 2008, will begin next March, according to a final rule establishing an inspection program for fish in the order Siluriformes, including catfish. The final rule, which applies to both domestically raised and imported Siluriformes fish, was developed by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and announced Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. It will become effective in March 2016, or 90 days after it is published in the Federal Register. CatfishSwimmingMain“FSIS is committed to a smooth and gradual introduction to the new inspection program, which was mandated by the 2014 Farm Bill,” said Al Almanza, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. “The agency will conduct extensive outreach to domestic industry and international partners so that they fully understand FSIS’ requirements prior to full implementation.” USDA inspection has long been sought by domestic catfish farmers who have difficulty competing with Asian-raised pangasius, a flaky white fish cousin to the pond-raised catfish of America’s gulf states. However, Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents the imported seafood industry, calls the entry of USDA into catfish inspection “an extra helping of government waste” just in time for Thanksgiving. That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is already charged with regulating fish imports, and the Government Accounting Office has repeatedly called USDA catfish inspection a prime example of government waste. “I am extremely disappointed with the Obama administration’s decision to implement these unnecessary and harmful regulations,” said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). “This decision to appease a small special interest group puts at risk hundreds of jobs in New Hampshire. These regulations have nothing to do with food safety and are an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars. I am committed to repealing this inspection program on behalf of the Granite State seafood businesses and the American taxpayers.” USDA’s announcement, made just hours before the federal government shut down for the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, included the first outline of how its catfish inspection will work. The agency said there will be an 18-month transitional implementation period for both domestic and foreign catfish producers. “On the March 2016 effective date, all Siluriformes fish, including catfish, will be under the regulatory jurisdiction of FSIS and no longer regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Before the effective date of the final rule, countries currently exporting product to the United States that wish to continue doing so must provide a list of establishments that currently export, as well as written documentation of their regulatory authority and compliance with existing FDA import requirements,” the announcement stated. It continued: “During the transitional period, FSIS will conduct inspection during all hours of operation at domestic establishments that slaughter and process Siluriformes fish, similar to inspection provided at meat and poultry slaughter and processing facilities, while also providing the establishments with close guidance to ensure that they understand FSIS’ requirements. During this time, inspection program personnel will also be assigned to visit domestic Siluriformes fish processing establishments, at least once per quarter.” “During the 18-month transitional period, FSIS will re-inspect and conduct species and residue sampling on imported Siluriformes fish shipments at least quarterly at U.S. import establishments on a random basis. Also, during the transitional period, countries wishing to continue exporting product to the United States after the transitional period must apply for an equivalency determination. Applications for equivalency must be completed by the end of the 18-month transitional period. FSIS will assist countries with their equivalency applications,” the agency noted. Finally this: “Countries that submit completed documentation demonstrating equivalency by the 18-month deadline will be able to continue exporting to the United States while the agency conducts a full equivalency evaluation, which includes an on-site audit. If additional information is required, FSIS will request that the foreign country respond or resubmit complete equivalence documentation within 90 day of receiving FSIS’s request. “Following the 18-month transitional period, inspection program personnel will continue to be assigned to conduct inspection during all hours of operation at domestic slaughter and processing establishments, and at least once per shift at processing-only establishments, which is similar to requirements for other food products that FSIS regulates. Also beginning at the end of the 18-month transitional period, FSIS will re-inspect and conduct species and residue tests on all incoming shipments.” According to Shaheen, USDA catfish inspection set-up costs were $20 million “without having inspected a single catfish,” and the program will have ongoing costs of $15 million a year. U.S. catfish farmers, who fund The Catfish Institute, support USDA inspections as an improvement on FDA inspections, which only touch about 2 percent of fish imports and subject only about .2 percent of those to laboratory testing. They point to independent reports, such as one conducted for the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, NC, last April, which found the carcinogen formaldehyde in Chinese tilapia and Vietnamese pangasius being sold in local supermarkets. The National Fisheries Institute counters by pointing out that catfish is a low-risk food. USDA catfish inspection could well become the next dispute for the U.S. to deal with at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Shaheen is not alone in calling the new USDA inspections “an illegal trade barrier that makes the U.S. economy vulnerable to costly WTO-sanctioned trade retaliation.”

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