Catfish Trade Controversy Challenges Environmental and Health Protection

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Catfish anyone? It may not be your preferred fish fry, but it’s at the center of a dispute that illustrates a number of issues that impact every one of us.

Catfish farming is a major industry in the Southeast. Recently, farmers have complained to government officials about low cost imports coming in from Asia that were driving prices down. So they asked for increased regulation.

Congress listened and moved the regulatory authority for catfish from the  FDA to the Dept. of Agriculture, which is generally known for more rigorous regulation. The process has taken years to work its way through the bureaucracy, but now that it’s done, it's starting to look like a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

The new inspections, like the daily USDA meat inspections, could cost the struggling industry millions that it can ill afford. David Acheson, a former associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, told the NY Times that, “Catfish producers asked for stronger regulations, but I think many of them thought it would only apply to foreign producers.”

Perhaps the farmers should have contacted the State Department rather than the Ag. Department if it was unfair trade practices that they were concerned about. But the farmers said that the imports, which come primarily from Vietnam and constitute some 75% of the US market, are produced under lax safety standards. Catfish imports from Vietnam rose from 1.9 million kilos in 2003 to 103 million kilos in 2012.

In fact, the State Department did assess a tariff of 77 cents per kilo on the catfish in 2013, though that has barely slowed the onslaught.

Ben Pentecost, president of Catfish Farmers of America, has suggested that the Vietnamese fish are raised with antibiotics in polluted water. But the Vietnamese Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, a trade group based in Ho Chi Minh City, insists that their catfish undergo rigorous testing and inspection. So does Le Chi Dzung, the head of the economic section at Vietnam's embassy in Washington. He says, "We understand that the American consumers have very high standards, and our ... farmers understand that," he says. "And we have been working with them to make sure that the regulations are met, the issues are addressed."

As for US farmers, they have seen their production drop from 133,000 acres in 2008 to barely half of that today. But those remaining, while not necessarily happy about the new inspections, believe they can meet them.

Says Dickie Stevens, president of Consolidated Catfish in Isola, Miss., “We should be able to deal with any new regulations,” he said. “And if there are plants out there that can’t, then they shouldn’t be selling catfish.”

It would seem that this should be a win for the consumer. But the story could take a disturbing turn should the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) be approved.

Under the TPP rules, countries that export goods into the U.S. could be in a position to sue the U.S. for imposing what they might consider a challenge to their ability to do business, even if the “challenge” is imposed in order to protect the health of U.S. citizens as well as the environment. This lowest common denominator approach to regulation that seems to be a central facet to the TPP has raised concerns among environmental groups. At the same time, trade hawks worry that regulations such as these could potentially derail the agreement, or at least provoke retaliation against the U.S. when it comes to some of our exports.

Image credit: Sheri Fresonke Harper: Flickr Creative Commons