LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service released its final rule Wednesday on a new inspection process for catfish and other ray-finned fish species that's scheduled to start in March.
Supporters say the long-stalled shift from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is necessary to ensure that catfish shipped from other countries undergoes the same safety regulations and checks as U.S. catfish. But opponents say the new rule is government waste designed to add a hurdle for imports.
Under the rule, USDA agency will conduct inspections at U.S. processing and slaughter facilities during all hours of operation, including at least one inspection per shift at plants that only process the fish.
Before the rule takes effect, countries that ship the fish to the U.S. will be required to provide a list of export facilities and documentation that they comply with existing FDA import requirements. Once March comes, FSIS will re-inspect and conduct species and residue tests on all imports.
The FDA had always inspected catfish in the past, but Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a major catfish-producing state, pushed legislation this year to give some of that authority to the USDA. Cochran has said a special program is needed to monitor and prevent the importation of fish that have banned substances, averting the "dangers of exposure to foreign agriculture drugs."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have said the real motive is to raise a new, higher hurdle for catfish imports from other nations, mainly Vietnam.
Catfish is big business, among the most popular fish in the U.S. Until recently, the market was the exclusive province of U.S. producers, located mostly in Southern states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama. But there's been a rise in cheaper Asian imports for several years.
The announcement came the afternoon before Thanksgiving, a time when few people are paying attention to government action. Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, a group that represents seafood producers and importers, said the Obama administration is kicking off the Thanksgiving holiday "with an extra helping of government waste."
"Seafood producers in places like New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, and California will suffer the costs associated with duplicative regulation as FDA and USDA both begin regulating seafood in the same plants," Gibbons said.
Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
This version of the story has been corrected to show that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was responsible for the catfish inspection program, not the U.S. Department of Agriculture.