New catfish inspection program will survive trade talks-U.S. officials

May 08 2018

Negotiations for a massive Pacific trade deal will not sink plans for a new U.S. catfish safety inspection program despite protests that it may hurt an increasingly popular Vietnamese seafood import, U.S. officials told Reuters.

Vietnamese negotiators have raised objections to the planned U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks, calling it a non-tariff trade barrier.

And U.S. catfish farmers have expressed concerns that the more rigorous inspection regime would be watered down during final negotiations. The plan, not yet finalized, would transfer catfish to the USDA from the Food and Drug Administration, which has safety responsibility for all other seafood.

But U.S. officials told Reuters that the catfish program would not be changed in the trade deal's food safety chapter, which is essentially completed and considered "stable text."

"The catfish statute is the law of the land. USDA is working toward a final rule, and TPP will not affect that," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because the overall trade deal is not yet finalized.

The final rules may require Hanoi to erect a parallel inspection program, similar to those USDA requires for countries exporting beef, pork and poultry to the United States. Vietnamese exporters say this could take years and in the interim, imports of Vietnam's pangasius catfish could be effectively barred.

The program's survival, at least for now, has given U.S. catfish growers hope that they can slow a rising tide of Vietnamese imports they claim are raised with antibiotics and chemicals banned in the United States to ward off disease, boost production and lower costs.

"Basically, the imports have taken about two thirds of our market," catfish farmer Bill Battle said recently as he showed a Reuters reporter hundreds of acres of former catfish pond beds that he has drained out of production at his farm in Tunica, Mississippi...

(Reporting By David Lawder; editing by Stuart Grudgings)