A new report has again put imported seafood inspections under the spotlight and leaves the USDA to answer questions about why it still hasn’t begun inspections as instructed in the 2008 farm bill.

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 (FDA).

The new study, authored by the Exponent Inc.’s Center for Chemical Regulation and Food Safety, says “FDA import inspections from 1998 to 2004 have shown consistently that fish and seafood products have one of the highest rates of import refusals due to food safety issues. The presence of harmful microorganisms and unapproved drugs is a frequent reason for refusals.”

Further, “imported fish from Vietnam and China are produced in much less controlled environments” than fish raised in the United States “with many more opportunities for microbiological and chemical contamination. Vietnamese farmers use water directly from the Mekong River with most farmers using no screen against contaminants.”

(For more about the Vietnamese farming practices, and a video of those practices click here.)

“I’ve said loud and clear that the release of the (USDA’s) Catfish Inspection Rule is long overdue,” said Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln during a press conference announcing the study. “Each day the USDA delays is another day we put Americans’ health at risk — there’s no question about that.”

Despite being chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Lincoln has found it hard to get USDA to pick up the pace. “We’ve made a request for (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) to get the regulation back to us. I’ve made that request more than once and we’ll continue to do that.”

Is there fear that implementing a new inspection regime would mean trade conflict with China and Vietnam?

“I think, without a doubt, that’s a concern,” said Lincoln. “Clearly, we have science on our side and should require importers to adhere to the same standards we ask of our farmers.”

The import inspection tug-of-war “has been dragging on for more than two years, now,” said Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America, who works ponds near Newport, Ark. “From our point of view, this is a health and safety issue — pure and simple.

“Our first priority is the health and safety of the American consumer. We’re not just supporting this law because it imposes tougher standards on imported fish. It also requires those same, tough standards on U.S. farm-raised catfish. We’re not asking for imported catfish to be treated any differently than (catfish raised in the United States).”

Currently, the FDA inspects only 2 percent of all imported seafood, including catfish products.

“That number is even more shocking in the face of the new report compiled by ... Exponent that exposes the alarming health dangers (to consumers) of imported catfish,” continued Lowery.

To see the full Exponent report, visit http://www.safecatfish.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Catfish_Risk-_Report.pdf.

“It’s been more than two years since Congress passed a law shifting responsibility for inspections of catfish and related species from the weak safety net of FDA to the tougher regulations and standards of USDA.”

While the Obama administration has said food safety is a top priority “this law is still tied up by the bureaucracy of (U.S.) agencies more concerned about hurting Asian exporters than protecting the safety of American consumers. It’s our view that trade should never trump the health and safety of the American people.”

Also at the press conference was Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the consumer group Food and Water Watch. While the organization wasn’t “an active participant in the (2008) farm bill discussions regarding the transfer of … inspections of imported catfish from the FDA to USDA, the more we studied the issue the more it made sense to us this is a consumer protection issue.”

Food and Water Watch “is familiar with inspection programs of both agencies,” said Corbo. “Because of the continuous inspection standards that exist under the federal Meat Inspection Act, it affords greater consumer protection. That inspection program is more preventive in nature.”

Corbo also praised the CFA, as it “isn’t often that an industry comes to Congress and asks that it be regulated more. We compliment them for recognizing the deficiencies in the food safety system and proposing ways to close at least some of the loopholes.”

The 2008 farm bill called for the USDA inspection regulations to be in place by December of 2009. Corbo pointed out that “the proposed regulations have been languishing at the Office of Management and Budget since Nov. 13, 2009. And they have continually extended the review of those rules.”

Corbo said representatives of various consumer organizations “have already met with representatives at OMB and U.S. Trade to move the process along. There should be an open and transparent debate. … The way to do that is to start the public comment period and hold the public meetings called for in the 2008 farm bill.”

email: dbennett@farmpress.com