Believe it or not, this is a question Congress has been debating for the last decade. One seafood company with headquarters in New Hampshire hopes a provision in the 2012 Farm Bill will put an end to the debate. Bill DiMento works at High Liner Foods, a frozen seafood company that employs 250 people at a seafood processing plant in Portsmouth. Catfish or not, DiMento wants to make sure High Liner can continue to import Pangasius from Asia, which they process and sell to school cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets.
According to DiMento, domestic catfish farmers were behind a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill that redefined Pangasius as a catfish. The change required the Department of Agriculture do a second inspection of the fish — in addition to the FDA, which inspects all seafood consumed in the United States. The cost of complying with new inspection requirements would prevent Asian Pangasius farmers from exporting the fish to the United States, and, DiMento says, would undermine a major piece of High Liner’s business.
In a way, Congress has been debating the definition of “catfish” for the last ten years. According to DiMento, they have done so in an attempt limit competition from foreign exporters. In the 2002 Farm Bill, a provision declared the Pangasius must not be referred to as catfish, so consumers would not confuse the second-rate foreign fish with American catfish. Now, Dimento says, the catfish lobby has done an about-face, this time declaring that the Pangasius is a catfish, and therefore should be regulated by the USDA. Pure protectionism, he says.
American catfish farmers disagree. Imported Asian catfish and the catfish-like Pangasius pose a serious threat to consumer safety, Jeff McCord of the Catfish Institute says. “Congress transferred the catfish program to USDA because the FDA was unable to adequately inspect imported catfish and catfish-like species,” he told me in an email.
In February, the Government Accountability Office released a report labeling the USDA Office of Catfish Inspections “unlikely to reduce the hazard of contamination in catfish,” and estimating that the office would cost taxpayers $30 million for the first year of operations. U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen co-sponsored a provision to eliminate the USDA’s catfish inspection program, which has now been adopted into the Senate’s version of the 2012 Farm Bill. According to Shaheen’s press secretary, the Senator believes USDA Office of Catfish Inspections is an “unnecessary government program,” that “prevents businesses like New Hampshire’s High Liner from making crucial investments in our economy.”