A recently released three-minute film puts the spotlight on Vietnamese catfish farming practices. The footage — showing crowded, polluted growing conditions — was shot during the third week of April by a crew hired by Catfish Farmers of America.
To see the video, visit http://www.vimeo.com/11817894.
“They went straight to where the fish are being produced and processed before being sent (to the United States),” said Chip Morgan, executive vice-president of Mississippi’s Delta Council, which is calling for the USDA to ramp up inspections of seafood imports.
Despite long-time complaints, Vietnam continues to export catfish tainted by pollution and antibiotics. Morgan says video shot in 2003 shows the same fish-farming conditions captured on film just a few weeks ago. “Nothing has changed — and it isn’t going to change.”
Only 2 percent of imported seafood is inspected annually. Seeking to remedy that, the 2008 farm bill requires the USDA to begin inspecting imported seafood, a job that had been held by the Food and Drug Administration. However, for fear of igniting a trade dispute, U.S. trade representatives have prevented such inspections from taking place. A ruling on the inspections is expected soon.
“What we’re hearing is the rule that’s coming won’t be the one we most desire,” said Morgan. “But it’ll leave us with a fighting chance. What they’ll come out with is a ‘vanilla’ rule. They won’t fall on either side of the major issue: the definition of catfish.
“The family of catfish includes the Vietnamese fish (being exported to the United States). There are different types in the taxonomy of catfish. We produce channel catfish. The Vietnamese catfish, basa and tra, fall in the same family but not the same genus.
“So, the government won’t define taxonomically the catfish we’re talking about. They’ll let the U.S. farmers and the importers and lobbyists argue through the rulemaking process about which catfish should be included in the inspections.
“Obviously, we think all catfish should be included. If it doesn’t, the catfish you see on that film will continue to not be inspected.”
The most compelling argument for inspections — “and the only possible excuse you could use for not inspecting the fish on that video — is that you don’t want retaliation from the Vietnamese government. Our question is: When did we start trading food safety for trade? That’s the last straw.”
With the evidence gathered, “It’s hard for me to believe someone would consciously say, ‘We need to keep shipping in 200,000 pounds a year of (basa and tra) to sell, uninspected, to American families.’”
Beef, poultry and pork all must pass USDA inspections. Morgan says catfish needs the same scrutiny and the law should be followed.
“When are we going to stop this frenzy with trade over food safety? If we aren’t going to stop at food safety where will we stop?”