Ten days away from the beginning of full enforcement of USDA catfish inspections, the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is doing a little remedial training for “wild-caught” producers.

The FSIS has scheduled educational meetings Thursday at the Holiday Inn Memphis Airport and Convention Center, and on Friday at the Florida Bass Conservation Center in Webster, FL.

The meetings are to “discuss the enforcement and implementation of the Final Rule on the mandatory inspection of fish of the order Siluriformes and products derived from such fish” with FSIS seeking out “participation from representatives from domestic wild-caught operations that process Siluriformes fish and fish products,” according to a notice from the government agency.

While most “wild-caught” catfish go home with those lucky enough to catch them, the FSIS rules cover some commercial operations. Under the rule, FSIS will inspect both wild-caught and farm-raised catfish processed in official establishments and test them for metals, dyes, pesticides and animal drug residues.

FSIS requires that fish harvested for human food, whether wild-caught or farm-raised, not be raised “under conditions that would render them unsound, unhealthful, or otherwise unfit for human food.”

Catfish farm

A variety of “farm-raised,” methods including fish in pools and floating cages are covered.

The 18-month transition period for the new catfish rule ends Sept. 1. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it completes the transition of catfish inspection from FDA to FSIS, as contemplated during discussions of the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills.

The domestic catfish industry — concentrated in the Gulf states — was the primary force behind the transition. Led by Indianola, MS-based Catfish Farmers of America, the industry claimed Asian catfish raised in polluted waters were unsafe and unfair competitors to American pond-raised and regulated producers. It said the foreign catfish was escaping sufficient scrutiny because FDA only inspects 1 percent to 2 percent of imported fish.

The McLean, VA-based National Fisheries Institute, which represents the broader industry, fought back for years and almost got Congress to reverse itself. Government fiscal watchdogs for several years before the FDA-USDA agreement raised questions about possible costly duplication.

Domestic catfish farmers had reason to enjoy the transition period. While USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports an ever so slight decline in the water surface area used for catfish — down 1 percent to 54.2 thousand acres — domestic catfish production is on the rebound.

Catfish operations in the three major producing states had 104 million food-size fish on hand on July 1, up 17 percent from July 1, 2016, when the total stood at 88.5 million food-size fish, according to NASS.

NASS monitors the domestic catfish production of Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, the three largest states in the industry.

Workers kill pangasius catfish before transfering them to the next processing line in a seafood factory in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. (© Jamesbox | Dreamstime.com)

Congress gave FSIS a kind of vote of confidence when it instructed the agency to begin re-inspection of all foreign catfish arriving at a U.S. port of entry almost one month ahead of the Sept. 1 end of the transition period.

Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gambia, Guyana, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Thailand and Vietnam are all countries “eligible to export” catfish species to the United States.

Vietnam alone has more than 60 companies on the FSIS list of plants eligible to export to the U.S.

Also on Sept. 1, FSIS is scheduled to start collecting and submitting samples of raw catfish for speciation, residue and Salmonella testing. Also, for ready-to-eat catfish, there will be tests for Listeria monocytogenes.

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