Washington, D.C.— Today, Food & Water Watch raised concerns about how changing USDA’s controversial catfish inspection program could allow exporters that are not meeting U.S. food safety standards to nonetheless send catfish to the United States. In a letter to USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, Alfred Almanza, the group pointed out that new procedures used by USDA to determine which foreign facilities are eligible to export catfish to the United States could leave consumers at risk. The group is calling on USDA to open a public comment period on this critical change to the process.
“This is yet another example of food safety taking a back seat to trade,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. Since USDA took over inspection of both domestic and imported siluriformes and catfish from the FDA in April 2016, inspectors have rejected several contaminated imported catfish shipments at the U.S. border, triggering a recall of domestic catfish products. “USDA has been trying to protect consumers from potentially unsafe food, but recent changes to the process for determining which foreign establishments are eligible to export catfish to the United States is a gross abdication of the agency’s authority under the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” said Hauter.
When the final rule for catfish inspection went into effect in December 2015, USDA set up a so-called “transitional” period in which other nations could submit a list of facilities that had already exported catfish products, along with documentation, to show that their food safety systems meet U.S. standards. After years of FDA inspection, the purpose of the transition period was to allow other countries to adjust to the new standards of USDA inspection. Countries that want to continue to export siluriformes under the new inspection regime had to notify USDA with a list of establishments that had been exporting products to the U.S. by March 1.
In August, USDA changed how it evaluates the food safety practices of facilities that want to export catfish products to the United States. This new approach requires countries to submit information about their safety systems. The act of submitting this information—not a determination that the country’s food safety standards are equivalent to USDA standards, or even the weaker U.S. FDA standards—is enough for USDA to allow exports from new foreign facilities that had never exported to the U.S. prior to December 2015. Two new Vietnamese seafood processors were recently approved to export their products to the U.S. under this new policy.
Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, [email protected]