Input costs are only one front where U.S. catfish producers are under pressure. Despite continuing issues with inspections of imported seafood, some lawmakers have rigidly argued against moving inspections from the FDA to the USDA as called for in the 2008 farm bill.

In fact, the farm bill passed by the Senate earlier this summer did away with the switch. Shortly thereafter, the House Agriculture Committee narrowly defeated a similar proposal, 25-20.

Prior to the vote, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member, rued the fact that the FDA has responsibility for inspecting any food. “Frankly, in my opinion, FDA should have never been given authority over food safety. We should have kept that with the USDA in the first place and we’d have had a lot better situation in this country. If I had my way we’d take all the (food) inspection away from FDA and put it with USDA.”

Reasoning for the USDA seafood inspections often includes the long-standing complaint about the miniscule percentage of imports actually checked by the FDA. A mid-October analysis by The Catfish Institute found that between January and September of this year “citing the presence of illegal and potentially dangerous drugs and/or salmonella, the FDA refused 54 shipments of imported tilapia. … The countries of origin of rejected fish were China (29 refusals), Taiwan (24 refusals) and Malaysia (1 refusal).

“This nine month 2012 data compares with 61 refusals of tilapia shipments during the same period last year. After growing rapidly in recent years, imports of frozen tilapia fillets declined to 292 million pounds in 2011, down from 333 pounds in 2010. U.S. farm-raised catfish is a safe and delicious substitute for imported tilapia.

“Despite poor water quality and lax health and safety regulations, China is the world's largest producer and exporter of farmed fish. More than 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported. Many consumers and experts are concerned because the FDA visually inspects only about two percent of these imports. Moreover, the FDA tests a mere two-tenths of one percent of imported seafood for banned drugs and illegal additives.”

An Oct. 22 report by NASS found that imports of catfish for August 2012 “totaled 23.7 million pounds, up 29 percent from the amount imported in August 2011. Imports were from Brazil, Canada, China, French Polynesia, Iceland, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. The (catfish) imports totaled 84.0 thousand pounds, which were from China.”

The NASS report, says Lowery, shows that “anytime you have something in the marketplace that’s a lot cheaper and, many time labeling isn’t enforced, it will have a big impact.

“A lot of companies here that are involved with seafood imports are about to come under a zero tariff. That’s because U.S. commerce officials won’t use a surrogate country that better reflects the market. They’re basing pricing and costs on Bangladesh and that skews the numbers. But they keep doing it and, as a result, it’s making it easier and easier for the importers.”