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Editor's Note: Catfish inspection, organic seafood bellwether industry topics
by Fiona Robinson
July 01, 2012
This month we have have updates on two issues that have been heavily debated for many years and that could have a huge impact on the seafood industry here and abroad. First, a preliminary voice vote by the U.S. Senate passed an amendment that would kill a proposal to move catfish inspection from the Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see News Recap page 6). Second, there has been movement on setting standards for organic seafood here in the United States.
The proposed USDA catfish inspection program has been a point of contention in the seafood industry since it was introduced as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, but was never implemented. It was proposed by the domestic catfish industry, which claims that domestic and imported catfish should be inspected by the same program to create a level playing field and increase safety for products destined for American dinner plates. But it was really a protectionist measure to prevent imported catfish products, including pangasius from Vietnam, from entering the U.S. market and driving prices down for the entire category. The U.S. catfish industry wagered that if all overseas processing plants had to switch from the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) program to the USDA inspection program that exporters would balk at the expense and send product elsewhere. They also backed a smear campaign of misinformation that claimed pangasius is farmed in unsanitary conditions (it’s not).
The Farm Bill amendment is being highlighted as an example of pork-barrel spending backed by Southern politicians looking to satisfy their constituents. Why force an industry to change from one inspection program to another, and have the USDA create an office for catfish inspection when the current FDA HACCP program has been lauded around the world for setting standardized food-safety measures at the production level?
The catfish issue also threatens overall trade relations with Vietnam, which goes far beyond where and how a fish is farmed. While the amendment still has to pass a House vote, I’m optimistic this issue will be put to rest once and for all.
The National Organic Standards Board is reviewing a list of substances for use in organic aquaculture (see News page 7). Use of the organic label for seafood could be a real boon for restaurants and retailers alike, as consumers search out the green and white “USDA Organic” label. At stake for farms is a share of the $26.7 billion U.S. market for organic food products — nothing to shake a stick at. However, it remains to be seen how attainable the label will be, as net-pen farms will only able to grow native species that have not been selectively bred to differ from wild stock. Another contentious issue is the use of fishmeal, which has to come from a fishery with sustainability certification. While the label is probably still a few years away for seafood, producers that are planning ahead for all the various requirements will definitely have a leg up on the competition. I know I search for the organic label on food. How about you?