Fair Trade With Asia Sought by U.S. Catfish Farmers

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
26 October 2006, at 1:00am

US - "Continued use by Asian fish farmers of banned antibiotics and a carcinogenic chemical in fish exported to the United States must be addressed by the federal government as freer trade relations are sought," said Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Jackson, MS, that promotes U.S. farm-raised catfish, the nation's fourth most popular seafood.

"Dangerous additives banned for human consumption in the U.S. are routinely found in imported Vietnamese basa and tra and in Chinese channel catfish, and Vietnam continues to mislabel seafood coming into this country. While Asian seafood imports are growing rapidly, federal inspections and testing of this food remains inadequate, at best."

The concerns of U.S. farm-raised catfish farmers, comprising America's largest aquaculture industry, were explained in an October 13 letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA) and the Committee's Ranking Democrat Charles Rangel (D-NY). The Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade treaties, and full House and Senate are expected to quickly approve legislation (H.R. 5602/S. 3495) authorizing permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam following the November 7 election.

Among the banned substances found in seafood imported from Vietnam and China are flouroquinolones, a family of strong antibiotics that include Cipro used to treat anthrax. Unnecessary ingestion of these drugs will cause consumers to build-up a resistance to these critical pharmaceuticals. Malachite green, a strong industrial dye and known carcinogen used in Asia as a fish egg fungicide, has also been found in Vietnamese basa and tra and Chinese channel catfish imported into the U.S.

With a Vietnam trade treaty now before Congress and President Bush planning a mid-November trip to Hanoi to meet with members of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation group to promote free trade, the spotlight is now on Vietnam.

"Vietnam's continued use of these substances cannot be excused or condoned by the use of these same chemicals within the aquaculture industry of China, its giant neighbor and competitor," Mr. Barlow said.

"In addition to using harmful banned chemicals, Vietnamese exporters continue to mislabel basa and tra, using species names such as grouper, sole and pike, in order to evade antidumping duties and mislead buyers about the identity of the fish," Mr. Barlow continued. "The mislabeling is rampant: millions of pounds of basa and tra fillets are being shipped to the United States improperly labeled. Although some federal criminal indictments have been brought and convictions won, the practice continues to be a serious problem."

Such mislabeled imported fish frequently end-up misidentified on restaurant menus. A study by the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES published on August 8 found that half of the "grouper" listed on menus in eleven Florida restaurants was actually cheaper imported species, including Vietnamese basa. DNA testing of fish in restaurants in other regions of the U.S. has found similar results.

Producers of Vietnamese basa and Chinese catfish have been the subject of at least ten import alerts issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since June 2005 because of banned antibiotics and malachite green. At present, however, the FDA only tests two percent of all imports coming into the U.S. each year and Asian fish imports are rapidly growing.

"American consumers have a right to know what they are eating," Mr. Barlow continued. "And, when they eat basa mislabeled as another fish, or basa containing banned chemicals, consumers are unwittingly being defrauded and, even worse, exposing themselves and their families to serious health risks."

While many fish species marketed in the U.S. today are raised on farms, growing conditions for Asian fish are typically far below the federal and state health and environmental standards met by American farmers. Aquacultured American catfish, for instance, are raised under environmentally controlled conditions in clay ponds using underground fresh water aquifers as well as rainwater. The ponds and fish are subject to standards set by the federal Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, state health departments and other authorities. Indeed, only chemicals approved for use in U.S. drinking water may be used in U.S. catfish ponds.

By comparison, fresh water sources available for Vietnamese and Chinese aquaculture are heavily polluted with industrial wastes including heavy metals and human sewage. Banned chemical additives are believed to be used in an effort to clean-up fish destined for export.

"U.S. catfish farmers are not afraid of competition and our industry is on record supporting normal trade relations with Vietnam," Mr. Barlow continued. "But, we seek and deserve fair trade, not just free trade."

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