CATFISH WEB SITE LAUNCHES PETITION ON IMPORT LABELING
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- In the face of increasing imports of potentially harmful imported Chinese catfish, the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry has developed an Internet site that urges consumers to sign a petition in support of country-of-origin labeling requirements for restaurants.
The new website,
www.USCatfish.com, which also teaches consumers about the safety, quality and sustainability of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish, features print advertisements and radio ads now airing throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.
In Alabama, a radio advertisement recorded by Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks encourages consumers to log on and sign the electronic petition to show support for country-of-origin labeling in restaurants. He also encourages people to ask restaurants where their fish came from.
The industry's primary goal is to require restaurants to state whether the fish they are serving is U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish, or an imported product from China or other parts of Asia.
Government officials and U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish producers have long been wary of imported Asian catfish-like species that continue to flood our nation's seafood industry. Little, if any, government regulation enables Asian importers to ship food products, such as catfish or wheat, with potentially dangerous additives into the U.S.
"The issue certainly is one of integrity of the product we feed our children," said Dick Stevens, president of Consolidated Catfish Companies, a catfish processor based in Isola, Miss. "This pet food incident has shined a light on an issue that already exists, and that is the fact that there are many contaminated products coming from China, not just wheat."
Roger Barlow, executive vice president of Catfish Farmers of America, referred to federal reports over the last several months that show many shipments of catfish-like products from China and Vietnam had been refused entry into the U.S. because of contaminants found in the fish.
"During the 12 months ending January 2007, 49 shipments of Chinese farmed catfish were refused by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because they contained banned and potentially dangerous chemicals and antibiotics," said Barlow. "In January 2007 alone, 10 shipments were refused entry, up from two refusals in January 2006."
"Frankly, I was not surprised to read about the wheat gluten poisoning incident," Barlow stated. "We know that Chinese fish farmers routinely use a variety of chemicals and antibiotics banned in the U.S. for use in or around human food, and that residues of these substances remain in the fish after harvest."
Barlow went on to say, "Imports of Chinese catfish are increasing, with overall Asian import numbers for February 2007 up some 456 percent, and those from China up 1055 percent. The concern now is that tainted imported catfish may be reaching consumers' dinner tables."
According to a recent report by the Associated Press, the FDA has sharply reduced its inspections of foreign food and today physically examines only 1.3 percent of all food imported into the United States.
According to one American catfish farmer, this is unacceptable. "I don't understand how unregulated, imported food products can continue to be offered to the public," said George Smelley, a catfish farmer and processor with operations in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. "My concern is that the current pet food problem could be repeated on the human level with citizens that are consuming unregulated food products."
Stevens, Barlow, and Smelley all agree that the public has a right to know where their fish comes from and the solutions to the issue lie in proper product labeling in restaurants and thorough inspections for imported products.
Federal legislation enacted in 2002 established Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requiring grocery stores to list where products are grown. However, no such requirement exists for the restaurant industry, which accounts for more than 70-percent of catfish consumption -- both imported and domestic.
Consumers are encouraged to look for the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish seal in grocery stores and to demand to know where their fish is from at restaurants.