WASHINGTON, June 2, 2016 – A ship carrying Chinese catfish to the U.S. retreated back to China rather than allow its cargo to undergo inspection by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, according to U.S. government and industry officials.

“They chose to withdraw the request for import inspection,” a U.S. government official who asked not to be identified told Agri-Pulse.

The Chinese shipper did not say why it was refusing inspection by FSIS, but the refusal forced U.S. officials to bar the product from being unloaded, the official said.

Another U.S. government official who also did not wish to be named said a separate shipment of Chinese catfish did go through inspection and passed.

The incident could become more fodder for lawmakers fighting to keep catfish inspection under USDA authority. Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a resolution of disapproval for provisions of the 2008 and 2014 farm bills that took catfish inspection authority away from the Food and Drug Administration and gave it to the USDA.

The Senate approved the measure and sent it to the House, but not before exposing a divide among Republicans on the issue. McCain and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire called the switch to USDA inspection a waste of taxpayer money, but John Boozman of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, among other senators, argued that USDA is doing a far better job at keeping contaminated catfish out of the U.S.

As evidence that USDA’s inspection program was working, Wicker noted that the department recently blocked two shipments of catfish from Vietnam that were found to be contaminated with residues of banned dyes and antibiotics. FSIS inspectors have rejected two of the six shipments from Vietnam since the switch from FDA oversight on April 15.

And the fact that the Chinese shipper decided not to risk failing inspection is more evidence that FSIS scrutiny is more effective than FDA’s previous efforts, supporters of the USDA inspection program say.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the FSIS catfish inspection program is working,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch. “To disrupt it at this point would put American consumers at risk.” He said the Chinese shipper may have been particularly worried because FSIS sampling procedures for banned drug residues are more effective than the ones previously used by FDA.

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There are other issues beyond food safety involved. Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute said recently that the inspection issue has the potential to cause a major trade spat with Vietnam, a key member country in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Vietnam, which ships hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of catfish to the U.S. every year, has accused the U.S. of using stricter USDA regulations to erect an unfair trade barrier.

“The impact of a WTO suit from Vietnam, which Vietnam would win … would be not only an impact on an important ag export market but (would result in) retaliatory tariffs from that market on U.S. ag exports,” Gibbons said.

Meanwhile, the Catfish Farmers of America said they welcome the increased scrutiny that imports, and the domestic product, are receiving.

“American consumers deserve to know that the catfish they eat has been inspected and is safe,” spokesman Chad Causey said. “The U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry has welcomed inspectors since the first day of FSIS inspection.  We are confident in the safety and wholesomeness of the product we provide to American consumers. We have nothing to hide but it certainly appears that some importers do.”

(CORRECTION: This report was corrected at 7:15 p.m. to show that just one shipment of Chinese catfish was turned away.)