WASHINGTON, March 30, 2016 - Vietnam is still angry over the increased scrutiny its catfish industry is going to get as the USDA takes over the regulatory duties of the FDA, going so far as to send a letter detailing its grievances to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Vietnam stopped short of seeking consultations - the first step in filing a dispute - but clearly asserted that the U.S. is trying to disrupt Vietnamese exports to the U.S. and “disguise” the effort by claiming that the move to USDA oversight is based on food safety concerns.

“In developing the new catfish inspection regulation, the U.S. appears not to have taken duly into consideration the existing trade in catfish and catfish products with Viet Nam and other countries,” the country wrote in the letter to the WTO’s Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures earlier this month.

“Viet Nam has exported catfish to the United States for nearly 20 years and there are no food safety problems with our fish. The implementation of the regulation in its current form is likely to significantly disrupt trade in the affected goods.”

Chad Causey, spokesman for the Catfish Farmers of America, dismissed Vietnam’s accusations and stressed that stronger regulations under the USDA are needed to make sure imports of siluriformes – the category of fish that includes catfish – are safe.

“We continue to believe that FSIS inspection of siluriformes will better protect the American consumer than FDA’s lax inspection system, where less than 2 percent of all seafood entering the country is inspected,” Causey said. “The domestic industry remains focused on ensuring FSIS inspection of our processing and farming operations is implemented properly -- with an eye toward improving food safety for American consumers.”

FSIS officials told Agri-Pulse that it will inspect all imported cargoes of catfish at ports of entry, and that’s why it’s so important that FSIS be the agency with jurisdiction. Vietnam ships about 500 metric tons to the U.S. every month, the Vietnamese government said in a recent statement.

“FSIS inspection means that an importing country’s inspections need to be enough like FSIS's to ensure safety of the imported product. We do not believe this in any way constitutes a non-tariff trade barrier. We are not asking anything more or less from U.S. trading partners. It is interesting that Vietnam is complaining about unfair treatment when they haven’t even submitted a request to FSIS for an equivalency determination,” said Chad Causey. 

U.S. industry and government officials say Vietnam and other Asian countries that export to the U.S. may have a tough time meeting the higher regulatory standards under FSIS, but the U.S. government is trying to help the foreign exporters. Vietnam sent a delegation to the U.S. earlier this year to get training on how to qualify for equivalency with FSIS food safety standards and USDA officials held “educational seminars” for Vietnam and China in February and March. In addition, FSIS is holding a “regional seminar” in Vietnam in April, according to FSIS officials. The agency has invited all countries that previously exported catfish to the U.S. to attend.

“FSIS is committed to ensuring a smooth transition and is willing to engage with any country interested in learning about the equivalency process,” a spokeswoman for the agency said.

But Vietnam – the largest exporter of catfish-like pangasius that ends up in processed fish products and in restaurants throughout the U.S. – is still demanding that FSIS stop its plan to take over inspection.

“As this regulation in its present form would result in a disguised restriction on international trade in violation of the United States' obligations under the WTO agreements, Viet Nam thanks the United States for addressing the above concerns,” the country said at the end of its letter.

USDA says the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is handling this issue for the department.  USTR officials did not respond to requests for comment on Vietnam’s letter to WTO.

Vietnam’s reluctance to submit its catfish farmers to daily inspections like those now performed at U.S. operations is the real problem, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “It seems that Vietnam is not interested in making the food safety investments that would make its inspection system equivalent,” Corbo said. “Because of the continuous inspection requirement under USDA food safety law, Vietnamese catfish products will not be made safer for U.S. consumers, but also for Vietnamese consumers. They should embrace this opportunity, not fight it."

But even if FSIS wanted to pull back on inspections, it couldn’t without congressional action. After an effort led by catfish farmers and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Congress ordered USDA to take over catfish inspection in the 2008 farm bill. The USDA did not act immediately, taking the next few years to debate whether Congress wanted it to oversee only domestic production or also the catfish-like pangasius produced and exported by countries like Vietnam. It wasn’t until the 2014 farm bill that Congress told USDA the agency could oversee imports.

On Dec. 2, 2015, the department published a final rule announcing it would take over inspection of domestic and imported catfish. The rule required that any country that wanted to continue to export catfish to the U.S. submit a list of the exporters by March 1, 2016, and then prove to the U.S. by September 2017 that the country has a food safety inspection system that is roughly equivalent to the FSIS system. Vietnam, China, Thailand and Burma registered more than 60 companies.


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