House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, may want to wait until after the Nov. 8 election, when the House of Representatives returns for the lame-duck session, to decide whether there will be a vote on the nation’s new and evolving catfish program. Every week that goes by sees the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new program for catfish inspection picking up new enlistments and expanding its ability to keep potentially dangerous products off American plates. But the speaker is under pressure from his House members, who want to use the vote to showcase how fiscally tight they can be by sending catfish inspection back to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The new USDA catfish inspection program is expected to cost about $2.5 million annually, about $1.4 million more than the previous system.

Workers kill pangasius catfish before transfering them to the next processing line in a seafood factory in the Mekong delta of Vietnam. (© Jamesbox |
A catfish-processing factory in Vietnam.
Under a rule from the federal Office of Management and Budget that became final last Dec. 2, catfish inspection was officially transferred to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) earlier this year. FSIS is now in an 18-month transition period, with full enforcement scheduled for Sept. 1, 2017. However, under a rarely used rule, the U.S. Senate on May 25 voted 55-43 to return catfish inspection duties to FDA. That vote upends the consensus of Congress as expressed in the past two farm bills. House backers of FDA catfish inspection claim to have enough votes to take the program away from USDA if Ryan would only permit a vote to occur, POLITICO’s Morning Agriculture reported on Thursday. Opponents say that USDA catfish inspection, which involved pulling Siluriformes (catfish) out while leaving all other seafood species within FDA’s authority, amounts to government waste and duplication. While the Congressional battle goes on mostly behind the scenes over the issue, FSIS has been building the new catfish inspection system with results that inspection advocates should find promising. In Vietnam, 60 plants have been cleared to export the meat of Siluriformes species to the U.S. These plants have submitted documentation to FSIS showing that they have the laws or legal measures in place to regulate the growing and processing of catfish for human food. Furthermore, they say they will ensure compliance with FDA regulations of fish and fish products. By the end of the transition period, these plants will have to show that their catfish inspection systems are equivalent to that of the U.S. While Vietnam is the largest source of foreign catfish, it is far from being the only one. Bangladesh has 30 plants enlisted to export catfish to the U.S., China has 19, Guyana enlisted 20, and Pakistan is in with 9. CatfishSwimmingMainSince April 15, imported Siluriformes fish and fish product shipments are being selected for reinspection and subjected to species and residue testing on at least a quarterly basis. Shipments are under scrutiny for such contaminants as pesticides, chemicals, and dyes. Both foreign and domestic catfish are coming in for the new attention. Vietnam has seen shipments detained, and in July, Wisner, LA-based Haring Catfish Inc. opted to recall 21, 521 pounds of catfish after FSIS discovered it contained gentian (crystal) residue. Gentian crystal violet is a chemical dye used in some medicine. A mix of products, including catfish tails, steaks, filets, whole fish, strips, and nuggets were involved in that recall. Siluriformes regulation is a way of casting a broad net over both North American and Asian catfish species. An estimated 1,300 domestic catfish farms and about 23 U.S. slaughtering and processing facilities handle the Ictaluridae family of catfish. The Catfish Farmers of America, representing the domestic catfish industry, are campaigning on the Hill to move forward with the new USDA catfish inspection program. They say they’ve lost market share because the previous inspection scheme run by FDA resulted in less than 2 percent of foreign catfish getting inspected, making it easy to slip adulterated foreign-raised catfish into the U.S. market. Imported catfish now account for about two-thirds of the U.S. market.

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