In a case of something written into the 2008 farm bill that’s yet to be enacted, U.S. catfish producers are pointing at the USDA’s failure to inspect seafood imports.

Currently, the USDA takes on the inspection of meat and poultry imported into the United States. However, it does not inspect imported seafood, leaving that to the Food and Drug Administration.

The USDA is shirking its responsibility, say critics. That’s because, behind a strong push by U.S. aquaculture interests during the farm bill debate, Congress shifted regulation of catfish products from the FDA to the USDA.

To the chagrin of U.S. catfish producers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — despite claims that food safety is among his top priorities — has failed to place all catfish products under USDA jurisdiction.

“We got that in the 2008 farm bill,” says a frustrated Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America and a catfish farmer in northeast Arkansas’ Jackson County. “It seemed like a natural for the catfish industry to be under the USDA, as they already inspect all the meat, poultry and dairy products.

“And catfish farming is no different than any other type. It’s the largest aquaculture industry in the country.”

A USDA inspection regime would be “a way to elevate the quality of our product. I can tell you all day long how good the product is and we can spend a lot of money on promotion. But being validated through USDA inspection will do a lot more for catfish.”

With the FDA’s paltry inspection numbers for imported seafood, Lowery says, the U.S. populace is likely unwittingly consuming unhealthy products.

“FDA has had the job of inspecting seafood. Part of that is checking imports from China, Vietnam and other countries that export fish to the United States. China ships channel cats to us, just like those we grow. Vietnam ships in basa, tra, and pangasius which are sometimes referred to as ‘Vietnamese catfish.’”

Over the past four years, “something like one of every four shipments inspected has been turned back by our inspectors. But FDA inspections only look at around 2 percent of the imported shipments! And last year, there was something like 5.2 billion pounds of seafood that came into the country.”

Extrapolate the high percentage of FDA rejections along with the low number of inspections and Lowery’s concern is evident.

“Ending in May of 2009, in a one-year period, FDA refused entry to 14 shipments of Vietnamese tra and basa. That’s a bit over one rejection per month. But, again, they’re only inspecting 2 percent of the shipments. So the odds aren’t really good on the other 98 percent.

“In my view, one bad shipment that makes its way into the United States is unacceptable. USDA inspections — which are stringent and a daily deal — should take care of that.”

“So, do officials use the narrow definition of ‘catfish’ and inspect only channels? Or do we deal with broader definitions which would encompass the Vietnamese fish? Obviously, we’re pushing for the broader language.”

But even if the imported product is labeled correctly, says Lowery “the U.S. marketers are still marketing these fish as a substitute for U.S. farm-raised catfish. If they want to be a substitute, they must adhere to the same standards we have to.”

When might the USDA take on seafood inspections?

“Right now, this is in USDA’s hands and they’ll make a recommendation,” says Lowery. “It will then go to OMB (the Office of Budget and Management) for 60 to 90 days. OMB will then come out with a rule. After that, there will be a 60-day public comment period. Following that, within 30 days a final rule will be issued.”

So it could be next spring before a final ruling is announced?

“That’s what I’m thinking, yes. It’s about a 180-day process after it leaves USDA.”

Asked how southern catfish farmers have done in 2009, Lowery says, “Feed costs have been a big issue for catfish growers. With commodity prices, the feed price has been jacked up.”

Fuel has been a bit cheaper than in 2008. “But our input costs are very high — just like with row-crop producers. Like everyone else, we’ve had a lot of rain and that probably prevented some feeding of fish. We haven’t been able to secure a good price to stabilize things and make operations profitable.”

Like other industry leaders, Lowery “unfortunately” sees “some more catfish acreage going out of production. There’s a good possibility that will happen. I know some farmers that had some under-stock they are feeding. When those fish are sold, they’ll probably be done.”

The U.S. catfish industry needs “something positive to happen, something to hang our hat on. Getting the right inspection language would be a big boost, I think.”

The current tough economy “has had an effect on people eating out, and we’ve probably lost around 25 percent of production in the industry in the last couple of years. We peaked out at around 600 million pounds. In 2008, the high was a little over 500 million pounds. This year, processed weight will probably be under 500 million — maybe 450 million to 500 million pounds.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com