WASHINGTON – A new rule published this month in the Federal Register promises to even the playing field for Mississippi’s catfish farmers by extending important safety protections to imports. For years, cheaper seafood imports from Southeast Asia have competed with U.S. catfish despite inferior production and health standards. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be able to apply uniform inspections to both foreign and domestic producers.
The long-awaited USDA safety requirements for catfish and catfish-like products — which already exist for other food commodities such as beef, pork, and poultry — are important to ensuring the health and well-being of Americans. Sen. Thad Cochran first authored the measure to improve inspection standards for catfish in the 2008 Farm Bill, transferring authority from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to USDA. This newly published rule would carry out Sen. Cochran’s provision. It is expected to go into effect in March, after a 90-day review period.
Preventing Cancer, Harmful Exposures
Seafood sold in America should be produced and processed in a safe and clean environment. Under FDA, only about 2 percent of America’s seafood imports are inspected, leaving the vast majority unchecked. Particularly troubling is the fact that overseas seafood can be exposed to antibiotics and unsanitary conditions that do not meet U.S. standards. Farm-raised U.S. catfish, meanwhile, is cultivated in controlled ponds.
Earlier this year, I joined Sen. Cochran on the Senate floor during consideration of trade promotion legislation to reiterate the importance of requiring the same safety protections for imported catfish varieties as U.S. catfish. Some have argued that the USDA catfish inspection program would be duplicative and wasteful. This is not the case at all. The insufficient FDA program will be eliminated once USDA starts its inspections.
There are also numerous health benefits at stake for the American people. A draft USDA rule from 2009 found that USDA inspections would reduce 175,000 lifetime cancers, more than 91 million exposures to antimicrobials, and more than 23 million exposures to heavy metal, such as lead or mercury. Although the Administration rejected that earlier rule, the impact on the public is one we cannot afford to ignore.
Protecting Quality-Controlled Catfish
Mississippians are proud of the wholesome, nutritious, delicious catfish that we raise in our state. There are nearly 300 Mississippi catfish farms, creating an almost $200 million industry. In fact, Mississippi raises more catfish than any other state in the country, and our entire aquaculture production ranks second in the nation. Like other agricultural goods, catfish remains a dominant sector of our local economy and a major employer.
Overseas imports that do not adhere to the proper requirements threaten to harm Americans’ health and devalue reputable, quality-controlled Mississippi catfish. We can eliminate these risks with across-the-board standards, which Sen. Cochran has worked diligently to implement. Publishing the final rule in the Federal Register is significant progress. Our task now is to ensure that the rule remains a fair and stringent means of inspecting catfish.