It’s been a process years in the making, but the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is now proposing to give China, Vietnam and Thailand a green light to export catfish to the U.S., so long as the product comes from USDA-certified facilities.

The public has until Oct. 19 to comment on the proposals.

The ability of the three countries to export catfish was thrown into question when the USDA took over regulatory responsibility of catfish inspection from the FDA in 2016. The switch was mandated in the 2014 farm bill and justified by lawmakers who said FSIS regulations were more stringent and did a better job of protecting consumers from the rising tide of imported catfish-like pangasius that fall under the siluriformes fish order.

The switch to USDA was championed by former Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and widely supported by U.S. catfish farmers.

As FSIS prepared to take over inspection in 2015, it demanded that any countries wishing to continue exporting catfish to the U.S. submit lists of exporters as well as pass stringent new audits by agency officials. In the meantime, FSIS announced an 18-month transition period that allowed foreign exporters to continue shipping to the U.S. while they and their governments conformed to USDA food safety regulations.

FSIS said it performed audits of all three government’s food safety regulations as well as conducted physical examinations of production and processing facilities in all three countries.

“FSIS is proposing this action because the Agency has reviewed Vietnam's laws, regulations, and inspection system as implemented and has determined that Vietnam's siluriformes fish inspection system is equivalent to the system that the United States has established under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and its implementing regulations,” the agency said today.

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FSIS issued similar statements in regard to China and Thailand, but Vietnam is by far the largest exporter of catfish to the U.S.

Vietnam exported about $382 million worth of catfish to the U.S. in 2017, or about 91 percent of all U.S. imports of the fish, according to USDA data. That translates into roughly 46 percent of all catfish consumed in the U.S. that year.

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