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Federal Food Safety Regulation: The Catfish Conundrum

posted on Wed, Mar 9 2016 11:17 am by Mathew Swinburne

Hundreds of millions of pounds of catfish are sold in the United States each year. On March 1, 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) mandatory inspection program for Siluriformes (the order of fish that includes catfish) went into effect. The program has been the focus of debate and international attention since its mandate in the 2008 Farm Bill. Previously, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been responsible for the safety of domestic and imported catfish.

Why did Congress make the FDA hand over the reins? Proponents of the program argue that this is about food safety. Opponents believe that economics is the catalyst; a beleaguered domestic catfish industry seeking protection from foreign competition.

Advocates point out that under the FDA’s system less than two percent of imported food is inspected, potentially allowing fish tainted by antibiotics and other chemicals into the U.S. In contrast, the USDA’s new program requires its Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) to reinspect all catfish imports. In addition, the USDA requires importers to provide documentation proving that their catfish food safety measures are “equivalent” to the USDA’s. Domestic catfish producers will also be subject to stricter regulation. Under the FDA, catfish facility inspection could be as infrequent as every 3 to 5 years. Now, FSIS must be present during all hours of operation at facilities that slaughter catfish. For facilities that only process the fish, FSIS makes quarterly inspections.

This new system comes with a heftier price tag. It is estimated that the USDA spent $20 million to establish the new program and that it will cost the government and industry around $14 million a year to run it. Compare this to the FDA’s inspection program that cost the government around $700,000 a year.  

Will the new system improve the safety of our food? In its health hazard analysis, the USDA estimates that the new system could prevent between 50 and 3,100 cases of salmonella poisoning a year. However, the Government Accountability Office has challenged the USDA’s analysis, claiming that the assessment was not based on current data and did not accurately evaluate the effectiveness of the FDA’s program.

Despite all of the debate, two things are certain. We have a new catfish inspection program and it will be a while before we can determine whether this change in our food safety system will pay public health dividends.

This post was developed by Mathew Swinburne, J.D., Senior Staff Attorney, the Network for Public Health Law--Eastern Region at the at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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