Friday, November 13, 2009

Catfish Farmers Want Stricter Regulations

by Hanna Raskin (Subscribe to Hanna Raskin's posts)
Posted Nov 13th 2009 11:00AM

Just as Southeastern oyster producers are clamoring for the government to stay out of their business, catfish farmers have launched a new ad campaign asking for more regulation of their industry.

"All catfish should be treated equally!," proclaims the Catfish Farmers of America's full-page ad targeting the USDA. The trade group's ads began appearing late last month in major publications, including the Washington Post.

Catfish farmers contend imported seafood should be held to the same stringent standards now applied to imported beef, poultry and pork. Unlike those commodities, which are inspected by the USDA, imported seafood is the domain of the FDA. According to government reports, only 2 percent of the 5.2 billion pounds of seafood that entered the U.S. last year was inspected.

"People are taking it for granted that everything's inspected, and they need to know what's going on," CFA president Joey Lowery says. "This is something that shouldn't even be negotiable, food safety for the American people."

The catfish industry has spent the better part of the last decade lobbying legislators behind-the-scenes and orchestrating letter-writing campaigns for increased inspections, but Lowery says the new ads represent the most aggressive stratagem yet. A CFA release claims that's because lawmakers have "reached a critical point."

Congress last year voted to shift catfish inspection authority to the USDA, but the bill didn't specifically define catfish. The Department of Agriculture is now considering whether its inspectors will be looking at all catfish-like fish or just those grown in channels. American catfish farmers are enthusiastically backing the broad definition.

"The only country raising channel fish is China," grumbles Lowery. "If the narrow definition is put in place, inspections will not be very effective."

Only 27 percent of imported catfish are channel fish, Lowery adds.

If the USDA endorses the narrow definition, the decision will provide a fitting cap for what industry insiders generally agree has been a miserable few years for catfish farmers. In a release issued by the University of Arkansas to mark National Catfish Month this past August, extension aquaculture specialist Steve Pomerleau was quoted as calling the last two years the "most difficult" in the industry's history. Rising feed prices and increased competition from abroad have conspired to put many farmers out of business.

"We've lost acreage, we've lost producers," Lowery says.

Still, Lowery is hoping he'll be able to add a notch to the industry's win column after Secretary Tom Vilsack decrees what counts as catfish.

"We're making it harder on ourselves to prove the quality of our product," Lowery says of the request featured in the group's newspaper ads. "Anyone coming in should adhere to those same standards

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