Catfish Shenanigans: Agriculture Dept. To Regulate Catfish in Trade Protectionist Move

Lee Doren, 202-331-2259

Nicole Ciandella, 202-331-2773

Washington, D.C., June 28, 2011 – Under the guise of consumer safety, American catfish farmers are trying to use the regulatory powers of both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in their efforts to keep out foreign competition. Only catfish would be regulated by both agencies — all other fish would continue to be under the FDA. In response, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) submitted a public interest comment criticizing the proposed Mandatory Inspection of Catfish and Catfish Products regulation.

“The U.S. government would be putting a wholly disproportionate regulatory burden on only one type of fish,” explained Fran Smith, a CEI adjunct fellow and trade policy expert.  “This is bad for consumers and taxpayers and sets a terrible precedent for U.S. trade relations, especially in these troubled economic times.”

Although both foreign and domestic catfish are currently regulated by the FDA under a rigorous HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) system, the proposed regulations would require catfish to be regulated by the USDA as well. 

The scope of the inspection program will be determined by the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) definition of the term “catfish.”  FSIS is considering two definitions.  “Catfish” could either mean fish classified only under the family Ictaluridae, as is the case now, or fish classified more broadly under the order Siluriformes.  If FSIS chooses the latter definition, all “catfish” exported by a foreign country will be subject to continuous, on-site inspections equivalent to U.S. inspections.  Furthermore, the exporter will have to certify individual processing establishments.

In a snarl of red tape and hurdles, including on-site reviews that can take years, foreign countries will have to be included in lengthy rulemaking procedures before they can export to the U.S.

There is also a high cost for the new rules. The USDA will spend $30 million in taxpayer money to implement the new catfish inspection system, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) 2011 High-Risk Series report.  The same report noted the proposed regulation would be at high risk for mismanagement and abuse.

CEI points out, there is no real safety issue related to foreign or domestic catfish. Instead, the proposal sets up new roadblocks in an effort to restrict foreign catfish.  Those unfair restrictions may well cause catfish-exporting countries to bring their complaints to the World Trade Organization.

CEI is a non-profit research and advocacy organization and has been extensively involved in issues dealing with food safety and other matters of public health, including numerous comments submitted to both the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

Read CEI’s Public Interest Comment Here.