As a battle brews on Capitol Hill over the future of catfish inspections, two catfish shipments from China retreated last week, rather than undergo U.S. border inspections. Upon hearing the news, Food & Water Watch reached out to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection System to learn more.
Today, both imported and domestic catfish inspections fall under the purview of the USDA, but they were once the responsibility of the FDA. Consumer groups and the domestic catfish industry supported the move to provide more rigorous food safety oversight to catfish that are often raised overseas with drugs and chemicals that are illegal in the United States. It was a rare instance where industry requested more federal oversight — including the constant presence of USDA inspectors in catfish processing plants — because repeated cases of tainted catfish imports were discouraging consumers from eating it at all.
Weakening Catfish Inspection
But some members of Congress want to reverse this stronger safety oversight by reinstating FDA’s inspection authority. The Senate recently voted to shift catfish inspection back to the FDA and Vietnamese seafood exporters celebrated this effort to weaken inspections.
Chinese shippers may well have decided to reroute the catfish to a country with weaker inspection. The USDA inspectors have only been on the job a few months, but they have already stopped two shipments of catfish from Vietnam, the biggest catfish exporter to the United States. The inspectors found chemical residues that are known carcinogens, as well as antibiotics, all of which are illegal in the United States.
In fact, in just two months, USDA stopped as many shipments of Vietnamese catfish tainted with illegal drugs and chemicals as FDA stopped in the previous three years combined. But despite the obvious safety problems associated with this product, more Vietnamese exporters are demanding the right to ship catfish to the United States.
These incidents raise important questions about providing careful oversight of imported foods. These questions would only become more vital if Congress passes the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
A Potential Flood of Seafood Imports
The TPP would accelerate food imports, particularly industrially farmed fish and seafood from Vietnam and Malaysia. To combat disease that results from raising too many fish in overcrowded conditions in dirty water, factory fish farms in these nations commonly use drugs and chemicals that are banned in the United States. Over the past fifteen years, total seafood imports from TPP nations have grown by a third—rising from 1.3 billion pounds in 2000 to 1.8 billion in 2015. The TPP will only increase the volume of fish imports coming into the U.S.
There are fewer than 100 FDA border inspectors overseeing seafood imports, so increasing the volume of imported fish makes it even harder to ensure that the food that enters U.S. supermarkets and restaurants is safe to eat. Currently the FDA only looks at about two percent of imported seafood, meaning that 98 percent of seafood comes in without even a cursory inspection. Consumer groups supported shifting catfish inspection to USDA to provide much better scrutiny of these imports.
The TPP would make it even harder to stop dangerous imports at the border. The deal would allow seafood exporters to second guess border inspectors and challenge their decisions to hold suspicious shipments for examination and laboratory testing. And the TPP will make it easier for foreign governments to challenge our food safety rules, including bans on many antibiotics on fish farms, as illegal trade barriers.
It's Time for Congressional Action
Now, Congress is threatening to weaken catfish inspection at the same time it is considering increasing catfish (and other seafood) imports with the TPP. The House of Representatives should reject the Senate’s dangerous surrender to Vietnamese exporters and keep the stronger USDA oversight in place.
Congress should also reject the TPP to ensure that all food safety inspectors can do their jobs free from foreign meddling. Take action today to urge Congress to reject the TPP and its attack on food safety.