August 27, 2005

FDA Won’t Ban Vietnamese Catfish

MOBILE, Ala. -- A battle over imported basa catfish from Vietnam, with disputes over best taste and best price, is sizzling in the Deep South, but federal officials Friday said they planned no nationwide ban, as called for in some Southern states.

Basa catfish from Vietnam have been banned in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama - three of the top catfish producers in the country - after illegal antibiotics turned up in basa samples. An Arkansas congressman also urged a nationwide ban.

But U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said Friday the agency stands behind its earlier decision only to issue an alert against imports containing unapproved drugs.

"I'm sure they are looking at our import alert and I'll just leave it there," Rawlings said in a telephone interview from FDA's headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Industry spokesman Roger Barlow, president of the Mississippi-based Catfish Institute, said FDA's decision not to order a nationwide ban was disappointing. He commended agriculture officials in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for detaining or banning the products, and noted FDA has not challenged those actions.

They came only weeks after news reports that a Mississippi State University taste test study found basa preferred over homegrown catfish by about 3-1. U.S. catfish growers and researchers said the results of the study were preliminary, and a later taste test by a small marketing research company rated basa and Mississippi farm-raised fish about even.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said the dispute is not about which catfish tastes better or has a better price, but about allowing fish treated with illegal antibiotics into the United States.

"We have our farmers in Alabama who have tried to diversify and go into aquaculture and catfish farming. I'm not going to sit back and let these countries play by different standards. It's not fair," Sparks said.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell on Thursday ordered Vietnamese basa removed from stores in that state, acting on test results from the Mississippi State Chemical Laboratory. The tests confirmed six samples of the fish imported for sale in the state contained prohibited antibiotics.

Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom banned basa catfish in that state and drew criticism from the restaurant industry. More than 415 tons of Vietnamese seafood has been pulled from sale in Louisiana. About 39 tons of seafood were later released after tests came back negative.

Basa importer Andrew Forman, CEO of Infinity Seafood Inc. in Boston, said Odom is "absolutely on a witch hunt." Forman said FDA's decision stopping short of a national ban was "exactly what I thought was going to happen."

Forman said there are "a million and one different vendors. Unless they test everyone, the findings are meaningless."

Sparks said Alabama, where about 250,000 pounds of imported seafood, including basa, were detained in warehouses, does not have the staff or money to test every shipment.

"One test ought to be enough to show they are still using chemicals being banned," he said.

Federal reports show that sales of U.S. farm-raised catfish, most of it grown in the Southeast, totaled 300 million pounds in 2004, compared to basa sales of 9 million pounds for that year. Some half-million Vietnamese live off the catfish trade in the Mekong Delta, according to reports.

Last week Ho Quoc Luc, president of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, said the bans in Louisiana and Alabama would not have a major impact on catfish exports to the United States, but said sales could be hurt if the issue is not resolved.

He said Vietnam worked hard to meet seafood safety standards, but could not rule out that antibiotics were used by catfish farmers.

On the Net:

The FDA alert: http://www.fda.gov/ora/fiars/ora_import_ia16124.html