“The southeast Asian aquaculture industry grew tremendously during the early to mid-2000s,” explained Butch Wilson, president of Catfish Farmers of America (CFA).

Leading the pack is Vietnamese aquaculture, he said, which produces and exports a catfish-like fish marketed in the U.S. as basa or swai.

“This product is grown and sold at a fraction of the cost of domestic seafood products,” Wilson said, and the lower price appealed to consumers as the economy floundered.

What those consumers may not realize, he said, is that there’s a lack of government regulation and oversight in Vietnam, and fish are grown there in polluted waters, with large amounts of chemicals and antibiotics used to offset the unhealthy growing conditions.

“Most, and sometimes all, of the chemicals and antibiotics used in Vietnamese aquaculture are illegal for use in food products in the United States,” Wilson said.

U.S. farm-raised catfish are raised in freshwater ponds and fed high-quality grain, made up mostly of soybean meal, but also sometimes a little corn or rice. The price of that feed has skyrocketed since 2001. Last year, the catfish industry saw feed price peaks never seen before, according to the Auburn-MSU report.

Even with the higher quality of U.S. farm-raised catfish, most consumers are lured by the low price of Asian imports, laments catfish farmer Hill.

“People are just looking at the price, not the product,” she said. “It’s a lack of education. People don’t realize what they’re eating.”

Only about 2 percent of imported catfish is inspected. The U.S. catfish industry has worked to change that. The 2008 farm bill shifted inspection of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and required the agency to establish an aggressive catfish inspection program. After years of inaction, the department finally issued regulations for the program last year, but it still isn’t finalized.

At the urging of fish importers, according to Wilson, the Senate-passed farm bill included an amendment to repeal the USDA catfish inspection program. The farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would retain the program.

As the farm bill moves forward, Wilson says, CFA will continue to support FSIS inspection of catfish, “which will strengthen food safety for American consumers.”

“Our domestic catfish industry would also be covered and inspected at 100 percent,” he emphasized, “just like imported catfish and catfish-like species. This is about protecting consumers and ensuring a safe seafood supply.”

The industry is also supporting a farm bill provision instructing USDA’s Risk Management Agency to explore the possibility of creating a margin insurance program for catfish farmers, to help protect them from volatility in feed costs and market prices.

Consumers who want safe, quality catfish should look for the U.S. farm-raised label, according to CFA. National country-of-origin labeling regulations cover fish sold in grocery stores. Also, legislators in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have passed similar country-of-origin labeling requirements for restaurants serving catfish and other seafood, also requiring labels and menus to indicate whether the fish was grown or caught.

“The greatest asset to the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry is an educated consumer,” Wilson said. “That’s why we’ve worked so hard over the years to explain the difference between our product and the imported catfish and catfish-like species grown in China and Vietnam. Our research has shown that, given the choice, Americans prefer domestic catfish.”

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