WASHINGTON, March 9, 2016 - More than 60 catfish exporting companies from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar have registered with the USDA in an effort to qualify to continue shipping to the U.S., but government records show that past food safety violations may make it a challenge for some.

The rush to register with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service comes as the agency assumes regulatory responsibilities from the FDA. Congress ordered FSIS to take over catfish inspection in 2008, but the agency balked for years, saying it was unclear if the catfish-like pangasius produced and exported by Asian countries like Vietnam fell under its jurisdiction.

Congress answered that question in the 2014 farm bill, telling USDA it does have the regulatory mandate to oversee the imports and on Dec. 2, 2015, the department published a final rule announcing it would take over inspection of domestic and imported catfish. FSIS officials began inspecting domestic producers on Mar. 1 and will start monitoring imports on Apr. 15.

The millions of dollars being spent to move catfish inspection from FDA to USDA caused a rift in Congress as many lawmakers complained it was a waste of money. But the switch to USDA was cemented with the support of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, from the catfish-farming state of Mississippi and one of the four primary architects of the last farm bill.

Over the coming months foreign exporters will have to prove to the FSIS that their food safety procedures are equivalent to those practiced by U.S. producers, but FDA records show that some suppliers have long histories of seeing shipments rejected due to drug residues and sanitary problems.

China’s Jiangsu HaiTian Sea-Beach Aquatic Foods Co. most recently had a shipment of catfish rejected by the FDA in November. The catfish was adulterated with banned veterinary drugs and additives, making the seafood unsafe for U.S. consumers, the FDA said in an “import refusal report.” The rejection was just one of many the company had experienced in recent years, but it is still listed among businesses seeking approval from FSIS.

The FDA was only inspecting about 2 percent of catfish imports, so documented rejections of shipments from companies like Jiangsu, Thailand-based I.T. Food Industries Co. and Vietnam-based HV Corp. represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unsafe imports, said Chad Causey, a spokesman for Catfish Farmers of America. All three companies have had catfish shipments refused because of contamination with chemicals that are banned in the U.S., the presence of salmonella or other reasons.

“The move to FSIS is all about food safety and I think the refusals data from FDA really backs up why U.S. farmers are concerned enough to push to be regulated at a higher level to protect consumer confidence in the overall fish market,” Causey said.

Food safety has been the rallying cry for proponents of moving catfish inspection to FSIS, but the switch is also expected to strongly benefit U.S. fish farmers if tougher food safety standards cause a drop in Asian competition. And FSIS, in a 2011 analysis published in the Federal Register, suggested this could be the case. U.S. catfish farms, mostly in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas, produced about $361 million worth of catfish in 2015, USDA data show.

“If countries that currently export catfish to the U.S. processors are not able to obtain equivalency before the implementation date, U.S. processors who rely on imported catfish may face a shortage of fish to process or would need to switch products they process leading to higher costs and lower profits,” FSIS warned in the document.

But FSIS, in its Dec. 2 rule, predicted that domestic production would be able to make up for any drop in imports.

Vietnam, the largest exporter of catfish to the U.S., ships about 500 metric tons to American ports every month, the Vietnamese government said in a recent statement.  And prices for Vietnamese imports are already going up as producers and shippers there have started adding in the higher costs of dealing with new USDA regulations, according to a release published by the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers.

Although foreign catfish exporters and the governments regulating them face new U.S. restrictions and more rigorous port inspection, they are getting a helping hand from USDA agencies, U.S. government officials said. For example, USDA officials in late February and early March held three-day “educational seminars” in Beijing and Hanoi, instructing their foreign counterparts on how to meet FSIS standards, according to USDA documents and officials.

Vietnam has been the most engaged. The country even sent a delegation to the U.S. earlier this year to get FSIS training in how to qualify for “equivalency” with U.S. food safety standards and have their production facilities survive U.S. audits, a USDA official said.

Those training sessions came after USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza and Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services Alexis Taylor traveled to Hanoi, Bangkok and Beijing to meet their foreign counterparts and explain USDA food safety standards.

Beyond just reviewing the equivalency paperwork that Vietnam and others will be submitting in the coming months, FSIS auditors will travel throughout the countries to visit production sites, test the water the fish are raised in for cleanliness, test fish for drug residues and examine the feed, USDA officials said.

China, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand have until Sept. 1, 2017, to prove to the U.S. that their countries have food safety inspection systems that are roughly equivalent to the FSIS system.

FSIS will begin testing and inspecting catfish imports at U.S. ports next month, even though the foreign shippers have not yet conformed to the agency’s food safety requirements.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens on April 15,” one USDA official said.

FSIS import inspection will begin ramping up next month, but on Sept. 1, 2017, the agency will be required to inspect all imported cargoes of catfish, the official said: “We’ll be looking at the shipping containers. We may open the boxes up to check the labeling. We’ll do salmonella testing and [chemical] residue testing,” the official said.


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