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Fishy Politics May Harm US Consumers

The Wall Street Journal has a great editorial today on one US industry’s latest attempt to secure some protection against foreign imports, which just may spark a trade war with an important target for American exports. This time, it’s the farmed fish industry, and the imports in question are catfish from Vietnam.

The U.S. catfish farming industry, located primarily in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, faces tough competition from Vietnamese imports, the value of which rose from $2 million in 1998 to $46 million in 2002, and $77 million last year, all the while chipping in on the US-produced market which fell from about fell from $488 million to $410 million during the same time period. That didn’t sit well with American fish farmers. So, in 2002, they convinced Congress pass a law forbidding Vietnamese catfish, which is a different species than the one farmed domestically, from being labeled as “catfish.” Instead, you’ll see it in supermarkets labeled as “basa” or “tra,” even though taxonomically, the Vietnamese fish are members of the family Pangasiidae within the order Siluriformes, which makes them genuine, authentic catfish.

American consumers seem to like the relatively inexpensive imports, no matter what they’re called. So, in 2003, the US farmed fish industry secured a punitive tariff of up to 64 percent on the Vietnamese fish. And, last year, the federal Farm Bill included a provision introduced by Republican Senator Thad Cochran (Miss.) that would authorize the federal government to shift the inspection of “catfish” from the Food and Drug Administration, which currently oversees nearly all seafood, to the US Department of Agriculture. According to the Associated Press,

“The inspections requirement could be the U.S. producers’ silver bullet, stopping imports in their tracks. Applying to all catfish sold in the U.S., it would require Vietnam to establish a complicated inspection system and demonstrate that it is equivalent to U.S. inspections, a process that could take years.”

Ironically,

“after years of arguing that the Vietnamese fish is not catfish — and winning a federal law saying as much — the U.S. farmers are now trying to have it both ways. Under their latest lobbying strategy, they want the Vietnamese imports considered catfish so that they will be covered by [the] new inspections regime”.

This is reminiscent of a similar dispute between the European Union and South American fishing industry that arose earlier this decade. In an effort to protect the European fishing industry, the EU adopted a rule that forbade Pacific Ocean-caught Sardinops sagax from being labeled as “sardines” despite their taxanomic similarity to Mediterranean-caught Sardinops walbaum. In 2002, the World Trade Organization found that this violated the EU’s GATT obligations and ruled in favor of the complainant, Peru.  It's worth noting that the US sided with Peru and the other South American countries in that dispute, but is now doing exactly what it condemned the EU for doing just a decade ago.

The various US attempts to hobble the Vietnamese farmed-catfish industry is no less underhanded. And, in order to prevent a trade war with Vietnam, it would be wise for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reject the pleas of US fish farmers to harm US consumers by making it harder for us to enjoy a good, safe, and inexpensive food.