There’s been a significant change as to which government agency will oversee catfish inspections in this country. The FDA will no longer regulate catfish and catfish-like species. Instead, the FDA will have the job.
That news is making headlines in an industry struggling under the weight of international competition.
Catfish farmers have faced multiple challenges over the last few years. From fights in the 2014 farm bill, increasing competition from Asia and now a debate over which governmental agency regulates their business. Some producers say the change is a big first step, while others say it’s a step in the wrong direction.
The catfish industry has been a part of Townsend Kyser’s day as long as he can remember. Growing up in a catfish raising family, he’s seen the ups and downs.
“Right now, times are good for the people who have weathered the storm,” said Kyser, who lives in Greensboro, Ala.
For Kyser, that storm first hit about a decade ago, when the price of both grain and oil increased. That’s when aan imported catfish-like species called pangasius began pouring into the U. S. from Asian countries.
“Our inputs went up, and other products were coming in at a cheaper rate. Those two things singlehandedly cut our industry in half,” said Kyser.In the last decade, pangasius numbers have risen sharply, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
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Imports are a real issue, according to Kyser.
“I’m still very much in favor of good, fair competition on an even playing field, but when other countries come in and undercut our prices and steal the markets that we spent a lifetime building, it hurts our communities,” said Kyser.
In 2008, some catfish producers asked for more regulations within the industry. Congress agreed to move inspection of foreign and domestic produced catfish from the Food and Drug Administration to USDA. Now starting in March, USDA will regulate catfish instead of the FDA.
“When the Governmental Accountability Office looked at the two competition programs between USDA and FDA, they found the USDA program was exceedingly expensive. They estimate about $170 million over 10 years. Currently, it only takes $700,000 a year for the FDA to regulate catfish,” said National Fisheries Institute Communications Vice President Gavin Gibbons.
Kyser however welcomes the news. “That is a wonderful brand. Everyone recognizes it, and we know that it’s safe and good. Our product will shine with that,” said Kyser.
USDA specializes in meats and eggs, but the FDA has regulatory oversight over all other fish and fishery products.
Some feel the inspection process changes by organization and new inspection systems may be costly.
Besides new costs, Gibbons argues the change only protects domestic producers and violates World Trade Organization rules. He worries the situation could bring retaliation and end up in court and other commodities could be impacted. “We don’t export any domestic catfish. That WTO target loss could potentially impact soybeans, cotton or beef for instance. In the end, trade retaliation is visited upon with U.S. ag exports. So, this is a lose, lose, lose,” said Gibbons.
When it comes to his own industry, Kyser isn’t worried about new restrictions to domestic catfish producers. “Federal regulation is not a problem for us in the catfish industry as long as it’s equal to everybody playing the game. We grow a safe and healthy product. All we are asking for is an equal playing field with competitors,” he said.
In an industry that’s seen tough times, catfish producers hope their industry can rebuild and in Kyser’s case, continue a lifelong legacy.
“It’s a lot to our community, and it’s a lot to our family,” said Kyser.
Kyser says some catfish producers originally asked for more regulations calling it a food-safety issue. He says the catfish-like species raised overseas are grown in unsafe or polluted environments, making the product unsafe for consumers. Gibbons disagrees, saying it’s a low-risk food.
USDA has set an 18-month transition period for domestic and international producers to adjust to the new rules.
What do you think of this shift? Will this move to USDA be good or bad for catfish producers? Let us know in the comments.