Last November, the USDA released its final rule on catfish inspection. The rule became effective in March 2016. But last week, the U.S. Senate voted to shut the program down by passing a resolution of Congressional disapproval and nullification. The program had been finding antibiotics and carcinogens from Siluriformes fish imported from Asia.
Catfish used to be inspected by the FDA, but the inspection process was transferred to USDA in the 2008 Farm Bill. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors would conduct inspections during all hours of operation at domestic facilities that slaughter and processes these fish, similar to the inspections they conduct at poultry and meat slaughter facilities. In 2011, the FDA tested less than 0.1% of all imported seafood for drug residues.
Officials from Vietnam say that the USDA inspection program is an unfair trade barrier. But environmental conditions and sanitary conditions in processing facilities in the countries that export catfish to the United States are a concern for food safety advocates. The countries of China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos are the big catfish exporting countries, providing almost three-quarters of U.S. catfish sales.
Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, said of the Senate’s Action, “nullifying this rule would roll back long overdue progress towards providing consumers some assurance that catfish sold in the United States meets basic safety standards. Congress transferred authority for the safety of catfish from the FDA to the USDA in the 2008 Farm Bill. Ever since, the imported catfish industry has tried to derail this system to allow imports to continue under the weaker FDA inspection system.”
Hauter added that imported catfish testing in 2015, 9% of imported catfish products “tested positive for the banned antimicrobial chemical malachite green, and 2 percent tested positive for the banned chemical gentian violet.”
During two weeks of inspection in May, import inspectors detained two shipments of catfish from Vietnam that were adulterated with gentian violet (a carcinogen), malachite green (a possible carcinogen used as an antimicrobial agent in farmed fish), enrofloxacin (an antibiotic) and fluoroquinolone (another antibiotic used in farmed fish). All of these compounds are illegal in catfish under U.S. laws.