WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2015 – USDA released a final rule today establishing an inspection service for imported and domestically-raised catfish, implementing provisions required by the 2014 farm bill.

When the rule takes effect in March, 90 days after being published in the Federal Register, regulatory responsibility for catfish and similar fish will shift to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) from the Food and Drug Administration, which will continue to regulate other fish.

“FSIS is committed to a smooth and gradual introduction to the new inspection program,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza. “The agency will conduct extensive outreach to domestic industry and international partners so that they fully understand FSIS’ requirements prior to full implementation.”

Lawmakers from Southern states including Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, where most catfish is raised in the U.S., have been pressing for tough new rules on catfish imports, charging that the FDA was failing to adequately inspect the fish from Vietnam and other Asian countries. In 2012 Vietnam shipped more than 200 million pounds of pangasius, a very large freshwater catfish, to the U.S., up from 36 million pounds five years earlier.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress such as Sen. John McCain, R-Az., opposed the inspection change, charging that it was duplicative and done mainly to protect domestic catfish producers.

The March 2016 effective date of the rule kicks off an 18-month transitional implementation period for both domestic and international producers. Before then, countries currently exporting product must provide written documentation of their regulatory authority and compliance with existing FDA import requirements.

During the transitional period, FSIS will conduct inspections at domestic establishments that slaughter and process catfish and other fish from the same order, Siluriformes. The inspections will be similar to those currently conducted at meat and poultry facilities. Inspectors will be assigned to visit domestic catfish processing establishments at least once per quarter.

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Also during the transitional period, FSIS will re-inspect and conduct species and residue sampling on imported Siluriformes fish shipments at least quarterly at U.S. import establishments on a random basis. Countries wishing to continue exporting product to the U.S. after the transitional period must apply for an equivalency determination. Countries that can demonstrate equivalency will be able to continue shipping to the U.S. while the agency conducts a full equivalency evaluation, which includes an on-site audit.

Following the18-month transitional period, inspectors will continue to be assigned to conduct inspections during all hours of operation at domestic slaughter and processing establishments, and at least once per shift at processing-only establishments, which is similar to requirements for other food products that FSIS regulates. Also beginning at the end of the 18-month transitional period, FSIS will re-inspect and conduct species and residue tests on all incoming shipments.