The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) adjusted inspection coverage at catfish slaughter facilities on Sept. 1, the same day an 18-month transition period ended. The transition period’s end marks the full transfer of responsibility for inspecting domestic and imported catfish to FSIS from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FSIS confirmed it was adjusting inspection coverage in a Sept. 1 announcement published in the Federal Register. The agency accepted comments on the change earlier in the summer. September 1 was also the date that “full enforcement” of FSIS catfish inspection also got underway.

During the transition period, FSIS found catfish slaughter is a streamlined, automated process that combines slaughter with processing in the same continuous operation “more like meat processing-only operations than like slaughter operations for other species amenable to the FMIA (Federal Meat Inspection Act).”

Beginning Sept. 1, FSIS therefore, changed its coverage at catfish facilities from all hours of operation to just covering production shifts, similar to the coverage provided for meat processing operations.

FSIS’s new jurisdiction over the “slaughter of fish of the order Siluriformes” stems from language in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills and a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding between FSIS and FDA.

Since the 18-month transition period began on March 1, 2016, domestic catfish and imported competitors like “basa” and “swai” are subject to mandatory inspection by FSIS.

One month before the transition period ended, FSIS also began inspecting all imported Siluriformes entering the United States, called a “secondary” action because the foreign country exporting the fish has the first responsibility. It stepped up oversight of foreign catfish because Congress requested it.

The second look by FSIS is to check for chemical and veterinary drug residues, and Salmonella.

When the transition period began, FSIS promised it would take an “all hours” approach to catfish inspection coverage, but said at the outset that it might in the future change to “once per day per shift” at processing establishments.

It invited comments on the change from May 17 to July 17, this year and collected responses from two trade associations, a fishing company, two FSIS inspectors, two consumer groups, and one foreign government.

Four of those responses supported the change, agreeing that fish slaughter is similar in operation to meat processing only establishments and unlike meat slaughter operations.

The foreign government supported the modification but requested less frequent inspection because it argued that fish pose little risk to public health.

The two consumer groups and a FSIS inspector opposed the move. One of the advocacy organizations argued that Congress intends a “greater care in inspecting catfish” than other meat products. FSIS said it does not agree with that interpretation.

One FSIS staffer opposed the change out of fear it would result in increased workloads for the inspectors. FSIS disagreed, saying it would just “place establishments that slaughter fish into ‘patrol assignments’ including other meat and poultry processing” facilities.

The FSIS announcement makes it clear the agency expects foreign governments to meet its standards.

“Therefore,” it said, “because FSIS will require government inspection of fish preparation at least once per production shift, to be determined equivalent, a foreign country’s fish inspection system must also provide government inspection at least once per production shift.”

Finally one of the consumer groups suggested the FSIS require foreign governments to do “all hours” inspection, but the agency said there is no basis for imposing requirements on foreign catfish that domestically produced fish escape.

In early 2016, the U.S. Senate voted to return catfish inspection to FDA. However, the House of Representatives never took up the regulatory maneuver. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was among those incensed over the cost of the FDA-FSIS duplication over catfish inspection, which several congressional oversight reports illustrated from 2008 to 2014.

Since then, FSIS has received praise from Congress in the current budget language about catfish inspection. And the duplication issue has faded since the 2015 memorandum of understanging between FDA and FSIS.

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