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The new reality of USDA catfish regulation

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Not since April 30, 2014, when USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) obtained the primary regulatory oversight for catfish and catfish products from the Food and Drug Administration, have there been any victory laps.

Domestic catfish farmers wanted USDA inspection as a strategy against their foreign competitors. But domestic catfish prices and production have not improved with the change. And catfish imports to the United States increased by 65,000 additional tons in 2019 compared to 2015, the year after the Memorandum of Understanding was signed.

That FSIS-FDA Memorandum of Understanding is 7 years old, and the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills’ dictates to move catfish inspections to FSIS from FDA are now reality.   

The FDA no longer inspects, samples, or analyzes catfish or Siluriformes products but exercises regulatory oversight over all other fish and fish products.

USDA has never taken that victory lap for taking catfish inspection away from FDA, but FSIS is featuring National Catfish Month on its website during August, making such points as these:

  • Mississippi produces 55 percent of America’s catfish.
  • Scientifically referred to as Siluriformes, catfish are subject to food safety inspections by FSIS. This provides information and resources for producers and agricultural businesses to help them maintain compliance with federally defined regulations.
  • Overall, wild-caught and farm-raised Siluriformes fish are harvested and sold for human food in the United States. 
  • Through the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, FSIS also inspects Siluriformes, including catfish, under the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
  • FSIS enforces the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act, which require federal inspection and regulation of meat, poultry, and processed egg products prepared for distribution in commerce for use as human food.

Congress almost changed its mind about which agency should regulate catfish. Catfish regulation was called one of the more “egregious examples of government waste” and duplication. The late Sen. John Mccain, R-AZ, opposed FSIS catfish regulations.

However, moving catfish regulation to FSIS prevailed, largely due to persistent lobbying by the Indianola, MS-based Catfish Farmers of America. The domestic farm group for those who raise catfish keeps close to the Gulf States congressional delegation.

Catfish production today is monitored by USDA. Three central producing states, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, as of July 31, 2021, were using 53,200 acres of water surface for catfish production. That’s down about 3 percent from a year ago.

What fish are now under FSIS jurisdiction?
FSIS has jurisdiction over all wild-caught and farm-raised Siluriformes fish that are harvested and sold for human food in the United States. This includes Siluriformes fish and fish products that are imported into the United States.

The following chart* lists some of the Siluriformes fish most commonly marketed in the United States.  Please note that this list is not all-inclusive.  Because common names of the fish can vary, reference the scientific name to determine whether the product is in the order Siluriformes.

SILURIFORMES* Ictaluridae Blue Catfish or Catfish Ictalurus furcatus
Channel Catfish or  Catfish Ictalurus punctatus
White Catfish or  Catfish Ameiurus catus
Black Bullhead or  Bullhead or Catfish Ameiurus melas
Yellow Bullhead or Bullhead or Catfish Ameiurus natalis
Brown Bullhead or  Bullhead or Catfish Ameiurus nebulosus
Flat Bullhead or  Bullhead or Catfish Ameiurus platycephalus
Clariidae Whitespotted fish or Chinese fish Clarias fuscus
Sharptooth Clarias Fish Clarias gariepinus
Broadhead Clarias Fish Clarias microcephalus
Walking Clarias Fish Clarias batrachus
Pangasius Swai or Sutchi or Striped Pangasius or Tra Pangasianodon hypophthalmus
Basa Pangasius bocourti
Mekong Giant Pangasius Pangasius gigas
Giant Pangasius Pangasius sanitwongsei
* This chart is not inclusive.  See also the “Guidance for Industry: The Seafood List–FDA’s Guide to Acceptable Market Names for Seafood Sold in Interstate Commerce” and the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) for appropriate common or usual names.

Are “roe” (eggs) and “maw” (air bladders) from Siluriformes fish subject to the final rule?
Yes, the requirements in the final rule apply to the production of Siluriformes fish parts other than the skeletal muscle, including “roe” and “maw”, that are to be sold for human food.

What activities require FSIS inspection?
Generally, under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and its implementing regulations, any establishment preparing Siluriformes fish or fish products for the wholesale market is required to operate under FSIS inspection. Retail businesses that prepare fish and fish products for sale to the end consumer are exempt from the requirements for inspection.

For a product with multiple ingredients, what amount of Siluriformes fish in the product would make it a product that falls under FSIS jurisdiction?
Generally, a product with multiple ingredients falls under FSIS jurisdiction and is subject to its inspection if the product contains at least 3 percent raw or at least 2 percent cooked Siluriformes fish and is not otherwise exempt from inspection (see 9 CFR § 532.5 and 532.3, respectively).

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