Credit: NOAA

If you’re a pescatarian who enjoys a good southern fried catfish, bad news: Congress has decided that effectively, catfish are now ‘meat.’ No more corn meal. No more tartar sauce. You’ll have to stick to tilapia or salmon, which, according to our government, are still fish.

Of course, this is silly. Tilapia, salmon, catfish--all these things are meat. But a recent change in the government’s definition of catfish raises issues of international trade, food safety, government spending, and, according to some, even the future of the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic fisheries that depend on it.

The shift has its roots in the 2008 Farm Bill, which included an amendment designating catfish as a “species amenable to the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” which “requires appointment of inspectors to examine and inspect all meat food products prepared for commerce.” The 2014 farm bill made it official: Starting this month, all fish in the order Siluriformes, which includes catfish and Asian farmed species like pangasius and basa, now fall under the purview of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service which requires inspectors to be present at facilities in which catfish are processed and labeled.  All other fish and seafood however, will remain under the authority of the FDA Seafood Inspection Program, which engages in fewer inspections.

So why catfish? Are they especially unsafe that they deserve more government oversight than any other seafood? American catfish farmers seem to think so. During two 2011 public comment sessions that requested feedback on the proposed catfish inspection rule, representatives from the catfish farming industry applauded additional oversight and regulation of their businesses. They were all very concerned with consumer health and safety.

A catfish industry representative said in his comment: “For the sake of consumer health, first and foremost, and also for the health of an important job-creating domestic and import industry, it is critical that FSIS begin regulating catfish.” Other industry representatives weighed in similarly.

To anyone familiar with the food industry’s usual attitude towards more government regulation—for any reason—these comments are extraordinary.

Also surprisingly in favor of more regulation was Republican Senator Thad Cochran from Mississippi (the state responsible for the majority of U.S. farmed catfish production), who introduced the catfish inspection rule in the 2008 Farm Bill. “The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the current FDA seafood inspection policy, which characterized its effectiveness as limited and in dire need of strengthening. Only two percent of imported catfish is currently inspected in the United States,” Senator Cochran commented.

It’s interesting that the Senator referenced the GAO report panning the FDA inspections as ineffective, because another GAO report, released in 2012 and updated this month, found that the USDA catfish program “would be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds and a duplication of activities because facilities that process both catfish and other seafood would be inspected by both USDA and FDA.”

The report is titled “Responsibility for Inspecting Catfish Should Not Be Assigned to USDA.”

There are other issues. The GAO found that FSIS’s decision to focus on Salmonella in its inspection program was based on “outdated and limited information in its risk assessment . . . For example, FSIS identified a single outbreak of Salmonella-caused illnesses, but this outbreak was not clearly linked to catfish.” Since that outbreak, GAO reported, the FDA in 1997 updated its seafood regulations, and “no similar outbreaks have occurred since.” The development of the FSIS catfish inspection program is expected to cost $14 or $15.4 million, depending whom you ask (with taxpayers on the hook for most of that), with annual costs of $2.5 million, though this may change as the program moves forward, according to a source at USDA. Contrast this with the estimated $700,000 the FDA currently spends inspecting catfish facilities. The new program will use hazard analysis methods that, according to the GAO, are basically no different from those that were employed by the FDA.

Just to reiterate: that’s an up-front cost of $14 million and an ongoing additional cost of $1.8 million to be spent on inspections aimed at preventing Salmonella infections from catfish based on an outbreak that may or may not have been caused by catfish nearly 20 years ago.

I contacted the USDA to ask about the reasoning behind the program, and the response was essentially ‘we serve at the pleasure of the U.S. Congress.’ In other words, we don’t make the laws, we just carry ‘em out.

The GAO makes a strong case against the FSIS catfish inspection program. But it never addressed a question that nagged me ever since I heard about this whole thing: What about all the other seafood in the U.S.? Senator Cochran and other supporters of the FSIS catfish inspection program repeatedly refer to the FDA’s two percent inspection rate for all seafood. Catfish have not been identified as any more or less dangerous to consumers than other seafood. So then, for the sake of consumer safety, if the FDA is so inadequate, shouldn’t all seafood be subject to USDA inspection?

I called Senator Cochran’s office and posed this question to one of his staffers.

“He’s not stated that,” the spokesperson said.

Is he looking into anything like that? I asked.

“No, he hasn’t addressed that, no,” he replied.  

By now you’ve probably figured out that consumer safety is not in fact the likely inspiration for this rule.

“It’s all meant to try to deter Chinese, Vietnam, and Thailand farm-raised catfish from getting into this country,” said Tim Sughrue, a former fisherman, research biologist, and now vice president of Congressional Seafoods, a wholesaler and processor based out of Jessup, Maryland.

Sughru and others have pointed out that one of the biggest threats to the domestic farm-raised catfish industry is the import of farmed fish from Asia, like basa and pangasius. The FSIS program requires all Siluriform imports to meet the same inspection criteria required by the USDA—a standard that for now, few, if any, of the Asian importers can meet.

Congressman Thompson of Mississippi, commenting on the proposed rule, admitted “the rule will have tremendous impact on jobs in my home state of Mississippi . . . Unfortunately, our acreage and production numbers are down.” 

John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at ProFish, another Maryland wholesaler, told me that it makes sense that domestic catfish farmers want to stop Asian imports. His sales of domestic farmed catfish are 10 percent of what they were in the last two or three years. But that’s also partly due to a new newcomer to the food scene in the Chesapeake region—a fish that John is actually quite happy to be selling more of: the blue catfish.

Credit: NOAA

Blue catfish were introduced as sport fish to the Chesapeake in the 1970s. “Once they were introduced, they spread pretty rapidly,” said Joseph Love, the tidal mass program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The blue catfish is voracious. It is an apex predator, and has no natural predators, is considered an invasive fish, and described by NOAA as a threat to the balance of the Chesapeake ecosystem.

“Part of the reason for the panic is that over the last few years the population is becoming more abundant,” said Love. “Many are aware of situation in the James River [where varying sources put the biomass between 70 and 90 percent blue catfish], and they’re concerned that the majority of the biomass is locked up in a single species. That’s scary to a lot of people who don’t want to see that happen. They care about the biodiversity of the Potomac . . . It’s also becoming obvious to anglers and commercial watermen. I think people are pretty concerned.”

Sughru from Congressional Seafoods is one of those people. He’s worried not only for the future of iconic Chesapeake products like blue crab, but also for the populations of anadromous fish, like herring, rock fish, and shad—that are born and spawn in the Chesapeake and its tributaries, then swim back out to the Atlantic.

Sughru said blue catfish eat these fish, their eggs, and their hatchlings as they travel up and down the Chesapeake, and this could affect commercial and recreational fisheries all along the Atlantic coast. “There is just no way you’re going to exterminate this fish,” he said. Sughru painted a dire picture: “They live for 20 years or more, grow to 100 pounds, and they’re the top predator in the Chesapeake Bay. They eat everything and nothing eats them.”

Except for us.

John Rorapaugh, like Sughru, has been selling more and more of the insatiable invader. “You feel like you’re doing the right thing,” he said. “You know, you’re bringing a protein to the public that’s healthy, and you’re helping the ecosystem. Even The Source [Wolfgang Puck’s DC restaurant] sells them now, as a fish sandwich and fish and chips, so you know if high-end restaurants are carrying them then it’s clearly a good protein.”

Blue catfish are in the order Siluriformes and as such are subject to the new FSIS inspections. “It’ll put [the blue catfish fishery] out of business,” Sughru told me. Rorapaugh was not quite as alarmed, but he shared some of Sughru’s concern.

“It’s still going to be a successful fishery, but I just hope [the FSIS inspections] don’t really increase the cost of doing business,” he said. Because of the abundance, mild flavor, and white flakey meat characteristic of blue catfish, Rorapaugh suggested that the fishery will continue to grow, and more and more people will get on board with eating this invasive fish.

But will that be enough? And will the new catfish inspection program be an impediment to controlling the exploding blue catfish population?

Source: NOAA

Joseph Love, of the Maryland DNR, wasn’t happy about any potential barrier: “Our job here has been to try and grease the wheels of harvest for this animal in a way that helps minimize its impact to our ecosystem . . . We want people to be able to buy this catfish at the lowest price possible to ensure that this animal gets harvested. The commercial harvest becomes a way of managing its biomass responsibly. Since we don’t have enough gear or people or time to go out there and harvest like [the commercial fishers can], we really need it to be incentivized as much as possible. So I wouldn’t call it a roadblock but it’s certainly a complication.”

There aren’t a lot of winners here. A statement on Senator Cochran’s website hailed the new FSIS catfish inspections as a win for consumers, but there’s little to no evidence that the rule will do anything to meaningfully address seafood safety, even though the problems are real: The science-based ocean conservation organization Oceana (full disclosure: my employer) has investigated shortcomings in government seafood traceability, and labeling, that leave the door open for fraud and the import of illegal and unregulated fish, including possibly unsafe products. GAO reports similarly conclude that seafood regulation is inadequate. Why congress is spending money to shift regulatory responsibility from the FDA for one single category of fish, rather than just strengthening current FDA practices, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Even the domestic catfish industry will likely enjoy only temporary relief, according to some public commenters on the proposed rule, as well as several people I spoke with who are familiar with international and domestic seafood markets. These sources predicted that within a few years some Asian importers will adapt, the market will adjust, and again, we’ll have cheap Asian imports flooding the market. But by then, hopefully, the Obama Administration will have enacted rules that require traceability information to follow all seafood from the boat to the dinner plate.

Blue Catfish Tacos: NOAA

If that happens, consumers will be able to more easily decide. Ideally, when you go to the grocery store, you won’t just see ‘catfish’ at the seafood counter. You’ll know exactly what kind of fish you’re getting, how it was caught or farmed, and where it comes from. And in this writer’s mind, it’s a pretty clear decision: This is a rare instance in which a food choice has a direct, positive impact on the environment, rather than the other way around.

I do love me some striped bass, blue crabs, and even herring. But I’m going to try to eat as much blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay as I can, hopefully before there’s nothing else left to eat in this important ecosystem.

And luckily I’m not a pescatarian, so catfish are still on my menu.

Update: 3/22/16, 2:27 pm: An earlier version of this post cited the GAO report which stated that the annual cost of the program will be $14 million. A USDA spokesperson emailed me saying that that is inaccurate, that the $14 million reflects the cost to develop the program, and that the ongoing annual cost during the transitional phase will be $2.5 million.