Gov't squishy on catfish inspections

A fisherman wrestles with a catfish.

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Kai Ryssdal: We got the March trade deficit numbers this morning. The imbalance between what we're importing and what we're sending overseas is at its highest level in almost a year-and-a-half. A trade gap in and of itself isn't a great thing economically, but today's report is being seen as a sign, generally speaking, of a rebounding economy. How you feel about international trade kind of depends, though, on what you do for a living and where your competition is coming from.

The American catfish industry is a real good example of the complicated relationship between government regulation and a global economy, as Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports.


John Dimsdale: At Washington's Georgia Brown's restaurant, chef Jim Foss says catfish is a popular item.

JIM FOSS: It's definitely a specialty here. We go through a lot of catfish.

Foss uses only domestic, farm-raised catfish. And out on the Lowery Aquafarms in central Arkansas, they're trying to keep it that way. On harvesting day, three men in waist-high water guide a net full of wiggling whiskered catfish toward a grappling hook on-shore. A crane lifts the net and dumps the fish into water-filled tanks on an 18-wheeler. These slimy creatures are headed for restaurants and supermarkets around the country.

Farm overseer Charley Mears tracks the size of the haul from his mud-splattered pickup. He has some advice for a city slicker from back east.

CHARLEY MEARS: If it looks wet, don't step in it. That's what you can expect.

When he got here 10 years ago, nearly 80 ponds held catfish. Now that's been cut in half. Mears says Asian imports are taking a bigger and bigger bite out of U.S. production.

For specifics, Mears refers me to the boss -- owner Joey Lowery. I caught up with him at home, bag packed for yet another trip to Washington. He's president of the Catfish Farmers of America. They're trying to get catfish inspections transferred from the Food and Drug Administration -- which oversees seafood inspections -- to the Department of Agriculture, which inspects meat. Lowery says while the FDA relies on spot checks, the Agriculture Department performs daily, continuous inspections.

JOEY LOWERY: They're the best we've got. USDA is the best we have to inspect food.

Lowery says the FDA's cursory inspections are letting contaminated fish into the U.S. market.

LOWERY: You know, I have a fear -- if foreign fish is left unchecked and it keeps coming in here, it could bleed over into the domestic industry.

He says unsafe foreign imports will scare customers away from all catfish. Hearing those complaints, Congress ordered the Agriculture Department to take over catfish inspections. The National Fisheries Institute, which represents importers, says this move is designed to cut off sales of cheaper, safe, imported catfish. Gavin Gibbons is their spokesman.

GAVIN GIBBONS: If it were regulated by USDA, all of a sudden that importation would stop, would potentially stop on a dime. And there's no demonstrable evidence that it would improve food safety.

He says it could take years for foreign catfish producers to adjust to USDA regulations. But the department, which has never inspected any kind of seafood before, is struggling to come up with rules for catfish inspections.

Byron Truglio, a former FDA seafood safety official, was hired to help the rule-makers.

BYRON TRUGLIO: The USDA at this point doesn't know what they're going to do. I know that for a fact. They don't know how they're going to regulate this.

The Agriculture Department won't comment, except to say its proposal for catfish inspections has been submitted for review by the White House. It's been there since last November.

Back at Georgia Brown's restaurant, chef Jim Foss says catfish isn't eaten raw so with proper there should be no problem.

FOSS: I think it's like any other food item. You have to practice proper food handling techniques -- from how it's received to how it's stored; making sure that you're rotating your stock.

His restaurant customers continue to enjoy the southern delicacy -- coated in buttermilk and fried -- just down the street from White House bureaucrats who are still wrestling with catfish inspections.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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