What does it really mean when Americans are told by their government that a certain food is safe to eat? Not much, it turns out.

Do you want an example of commerce trumping food safety? Consider the homely catfish, which continues to be the focal point in a bizarre, international trade tug-of-war that pits business and trade against the well-being of U.S. citizens. So far, the scales have not tipped in the favor of consumers – not even close.

Few would disagree that the U.S. food supply needs proper inspections and safeguards to keep citizens from becoming ill. Following several recent, high-profile food recalls, food safety legislation – hailed by many as “landmark” — passed the Senate this week.

An esoteric tax rule now threatens that bill’s passage in the House. However, even if the bill dies, it won’t erase the cynical posture that the Obama administration finds itself in regarding aquaculture inspections, both domestic and imported.

On one hand, the government claims to want the U.S. food supply to be safe and clean, that such protection is paramount. With the other, it shakes hands with Asian trade officials and those who do business with them, all the while knowing that those same foreign officials and businessmen thumb their noses at safety and continue unabated shipments of tainted product into our country.

On this issue, we are being taken for suckers.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Consider these facts:

  • In 2008, a paltry 2 percent of over 5 billion pounds of imported seafood was inspected. Inspection numbers have not improved since.
  • In 2006 alone, 49 shipments of Asian catfish were turned back as unfit for the U.S. markets. This occurred with less than 2 percent of imports being inspected. That same year, Chinese aquaculture imports topped 4.5 billion pounds (representing 80 percent of U.S. imports and up 1 billion pounds over 1995).
  • Among the things found in Asian aquaculture imports in the last decade: the antibiotic chloramphenicol and contaminants/carcinogens such as malachite green, fluoroquinolones, nitrofurans and gentian violet.

Vietnamese catfish production conditions appalling

It is undeniable that Vietnamese catfish destined for the United States are being raised in river pens where run-off from agriculture, factory waste and human/livestock-generated sewage is dumped.

Despite that unsavory history, cheap Asian product continues to reach U.S. groceries and restaurants uninspected.

This is, of course, to the great detriment of the U.S. catfish industry, which must adhere to rules governing the use of antibiotics, contaminants and cleanliness. Not only are U.S. producers forced to incur greater costs than their foreign competitors, they have also been forced to watch their domestic market share shrink. The predictable result: since 2001, catfish acres in the Mississippi delta have decreased 43 percent, going from 113,000 acres to 64,000 acres in 2010.

It should be noted that while the Obama administration has been willfully idle on the issue, it inherited the situation. The battle over inspections began years ago and – pushed by U.S. catfish producers and the Mid-South delegation -- culminated in the 2008 farm bill, which called for inspections to be taken from the ineffective FDA and given to the USDA. As it already has more robust inspection regimes set up for beef and pork, Congress instructed the USDA to do the same for aquaculture.

This was mandated to take place a mere 180 days after the bill passed. To the joy of businessmen and lobbyists willing to sell out the health of U.S. consumers, that deadline has been ignored.

No aquaculture in food safety bill

So why didn’t the food safety bill currently bouncing around the lame-duck Congress have an aquaculture component?

“Quite frankly, the law is already clear,” says Ben Noble, who represents the Catfish Farmers of America in Washington.“We’ve already moved inspections from the FDA to the USDA. There’s little left to do legislatively. The responsibility now rests on the USDA and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to get it done.”

 “The (Mid-South) delegation was split on” the recent, Senate-passed bill, says Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council. “The bill was really in reaction to some of the criticism FDA has received due to food safety issues that have arisen.

“Obviously, the incidents that caught the most attention were eggs and chicken, not catfish. Even though, to us, the catfish (safety/inspection) issue has been very prominent, it hasn’t gotten nearly the national attention eggs and chickens have. And, of course, remember that those two are domestic, not international.

“Our issue is that China and Vietnam really don’t want the USDA to put inspectors in their plants. If you want to get down to the bottom of it, that’s what it amounts to.  And if our proposal was to be implemented, that’s exactly what would happen…

“We find this most unfortunate because when you say ‘food safety’ in catfish country, it’s pretty clear we’ve lost 60 percent of the industry to imports proven to be contaminated.”

Currently, the switch of aquaculture inspections to USDA remains hung up in the OMB. Government officials have been reluctant to make definitive statements on when the issue may be resolved.

“It’s shameful and I’m embarrassed that we haven’t been able to get a rule,” says Morgan. “Not that we haven’t gotten the rule we wanted – just a rule. We haven’t gotten any rule. And the last farm bill said this was supposed to be done in 180 days. That 180 days was up 360 days ago.”

Will there be a point when the U.S. catfish industry drops current efforts to force USDA inspections and tries a different tactic?

“We’ve got a conference call scheduled to talk about this,” says Morgan. “My view is we may have to go the legal route and sue. We can’t even get a rule out.

“We’ve already gone public with this. We’ve bought ads in Politico and Roll Call, put out the videos on YouTube. But it isn’t moving the needle.

So, I don’t know what’s left to do” besides legal action.

Morgan says Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor “is picking up the torch (from Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee) for the majority side of the aisle. He’s studying mechanisms and means to use to get the White House to move.”

However, with Sen. Lincoln’s defeat in the November election, “it’s like starting over.”

Noble says those he represents continue to “be hopeful the rule will move forward. They’re well over deadline and our point to the Obama administration is: Congress is beginning to talk about a new farm bill when the last one hasn’t even been fully implemented. We’re extremely frustrated.

“We continue to be concerned about the quality of fish coming into the United States. That’s why we want increased, more thorough inspections. Until that happens, we still have an aquaculture industry where only 2 percent of the imported products are being inspected.”

dbennett@farmpress.com