For years U.S. catfish farmers have complained about unfair Asian aquaculture management and the dangers it poses to U.S. consumers. U.S. farmers have charged Chinese and Vietnamese operations with improper use of antibiotics and chemicals and using unclean water supplies.

But even as Chinese aquaculture imports topped 4.5 billion pounds in 2006 (representing 80 percent of U.S. imports and up 1 billion pounds since 1995) few in government listened. Even after the FDA was alerted in 2002 of European tests on Chinese shrimp showing the antibiotic chloramphenicol (and periodic, similar alerts from the agency since then) there was no governmental move to halt the imports.

Then, in late spring, Fido keeled over, muzzle-deep in tainted, imported Chinese feed. At that point, with distraught pet-owners barking in its collective ear, the U.S. government finally took a closer look at exactly what Chinese imports contained.

What it found in fish — including banned contaminants like malachite green, fluoroquinolones, nitrofurans and gentian violet — proved the U.S. catfish industry hadn’t been crying wolf. Some of the banned substances are carcinogens; others increase the risk of antibiotic resistance and the development of a super bug.

Sufficiently alarmed, on June 28 the FDA announced an alert and the imposition of stricter import guidelines on Chinese farm-raised catfish (basa or tra), bass, shrimp, dace and eel.

“We’re taking this strong step because of current and continuing evidence that certain Chinese aquaculture products imported into the United States contain illegal substances that are not permitted in seafood sold in the United States,” said David Acheson, FDA’s assistant commissioner for food protection.

Shortly thereafter, attempting to show it took the charges seriously, Chinese officials announced 180 food production plants had been closed and more than 23,000 food safety violations had been found. Even so, the new FDA rules stand.

“I applaud the FDA for imposing a nationwide ban on importing fish from China to help ensure the health and safety of all Americans,” said Rep. Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat with fish-farming operations in his district. “Our food supply is critical to our national security and we must not allow foreign producers to provide us contaminated foods that do not meet the FDA standards.

“We require strict guidelines from our local farmers and we must demand the same accountability from our imported food sources as well. The FDA’s swift action on this matter is greatly appreciated and I want to thank them for recognizing the health risks these imported fish pose to American consumers.”

But the FDA is late to the game, said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This latest crisis is further proof that FDA has serious catching up to do. There is a pattern emerging here. Over two months ago several states in this country had to step in and take action when they found unapproved drugs in farm-raised seafood from China. With the largest pet food recall in American history originating in China — and with proof from states that producers in China are using banned drugs in aquaculture — why is FDA just now banning these products from China?”

Roger Barlow is just happy the ban is now in place.

“This is a food safety issue,” says the president of the Catfish Institute and executive director of Catfish Farmers of America. “They’re doing what’s right … We’re not saying there shouldn’t be (Chinese) product allowed in. What we are clearly saying is any product allowed in must be held to the same high standards as (U.S. farm-raised) catfish. The public has a right to be protected.”

A key part of that protection is Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), says Keith King, president of the Catfish Farmers of Mississippi. “The steady stream of discoveries — almost daily, it seems — about substandard or tainted products being imported from China continues right along. The last problem is on Chinese tires. Those are jeopardizing U.S. roadways and their catfish is jeopardizing U.S. health.”

COOL proponents believe catfish restaurants should inform consumers where the fish was raised. Would that be best done with a menu sticker? A sign on the door?

“Either way, as far as I’m concerned. It can be anything simple and obvious. Some eating establishments don’t even have a menu. Maybe they can put a sticker on the menu board.

“We don’t want this to be burdensome or draconian. The folks serving catfish are our friends. At the same time, it would serve the consumer well to know what they’re eating.”

COOL legislation is “imperative,” says Barlow. “The consuming public has a right to know what they’re eating and where it’s from.”

Catfish Farmers of Mississippi has called for a special state legislative session to address COOL labeling. In addition, a COOL bill “was introduced that never made it into law in Alabama. There is a COOL law in Arkansas that will soon be enforced.

“There’s a lot of momentum behind this. Whenever we do a focus group — and we just completed a national survey — U.S. consumers want U.S. farm-raised catfish. And, overwhelmingly, they want to know where their catfish comes from.”

A coordinated effort among catfish-producing states to push COOL is under way.

“The state catfish organizations of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama have already met,” says Barlow. “We’ll meet again soon and further discuss this and some type of unified effort. We’re all in this together and all the states need laws that are very similar.”

How should the FDA handle Asian aquaculture imports?

“I think from a government inspection standpoint, there’s got to be some ramped up efforts,” says King. “That’s a given. I know the FDA doesn’t have extra personnel or budgets for that. But they’d better find the personnel and budgets.

“What’s the alternative? Continuing to accept the risk of tainted products coming into our country isn’t an option. We can’t turn away from this. We have to protect our citizens — it’s vitally important the government do that.”

Barlow says the problem with Chinese fish imports has been obvious for a long time.

“Forty-nine shipments of Asian catfish were turned back in 2006 alone … Those results occurred with only 1 percent to 1.5 percent (of imports) being inspected. It was time for something to change and we’re very pleased with the actions taken. Let me emphasize again: this is a food safety issue.”

It is unfortunate pets had to die to make the public aware of the Chinese import issues, says Barlow. However, “There is no question that when Fluffy died, the world changed.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com