As of late, good news coming from the beleaguered US catfish industry has been meagre at best, reports Sun Herald.
So, it made headlines when, after years of lobbying by the industry, the 2008 Farm Bill approved the transfer of the inspection of imported fish from the Food and Drug Administration to the US Department of Agriculture.
Now, there is a chance that victory is a hollow one. The USDA has delayed implementation of the programme, and its current budget proposal for catfish inspections is nearly one-third less than was provided by Congress for the programme in fiscal year 2010. This is raising concerns from those in Congress to producers in the field.
Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said: "We have been advised by some of our aquaculture and catfish farmer constituents that the department hasn't been doing much to support them in their efforts to get inspections of foreign fish that are imported into the country.
"This makes it difficult to compete because the importers are not going through the same inspection processes or other safeguards that are required of our domestic producers. We have got a problem here, and folks are not only angry but some of them are also going out of business."
Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America, commented: "There are a lot of the producers right now who are riding the fence. There are ready for some right things to happen, and USDA inspecting imported fish could be one of those things.
"If they do not see more positive news, a lot of them are going to go out of business, I'm afraid."
Over the past decade, domestic catfish producers have faced a seemingly never-ending string of set backs, from high feed costs to pond predation by birds, according to Sun Herald. One issue that has persisted is with imported fish, particularly product from Asia. US producers said much of the imported fish is not catfish but such species as basa, tra or swai. This creates unfair market competition to domestic farm-raised catfish and leads to consumer confusion, they claim.
Further, they maintain that the foreign fish are not raised under the same standards as US catfish, raising food safety and health concerns.
Those concerns were elevated by the FDA's inspections – or lack thereof. According to government figures, the FDA only inspected approximately two per cent of the 5.2 billion pounds of seafood imported into the US in 2008.
The US catfish industry claimed that was insufficient to ensure product safety and quality. And, they pointed to last year, when the State of Alabama halted the sale of imported Asian catfish and related species after it was discovered they were contaminated with the antibiotic fluoroquinolones, which is banned in the US.
The US industry felt that the USDA would conduct more effective inspections, and the Department was a better 'fit' for aquaculture processing than the FDA. The industry felt vindicated when the inspections were shifted to the USDA under the 2008 Farm Bill.
The catfish industry has faced challenges of late ranging from high feed costs to pond predation by birds. The delay in the transfer of inspections from the FDA to the USDA is just one more hurdle, but one that could drive many producers from the industry.
However, nothing thus far has happened.
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