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CU comments regarding the FSIS proposal to require inspection of catfish

Comments of Consumers Union on
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)
Proposed rule on Mandatory Inspection of Catfish and Catfish Products
Docket No.  FSIS-2008-0031
Prepared by Michael Hansen, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
June 24, 2011


Consumers Union(1) (CU) welcomes the opportunity to comment on FSIS’ new proposal to require continuous inspection of catfish and catfish products.  We are glad that FSIS will mandate inspection of catfish and catfish products.  We believe that FSIS is better suited than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure the safety of domestic and imported catfish, as FSIS does a more comprehensive review of food safety systems.  We have concerns about the potential safety of catfish and catfish products being imported into the US, especially from Vietnam, China, and Thailand.  Vietnam allows 38 drugs to be used in aquaculture, while the US allows only 6.  We believe that USDA should define catfish to include all fish in the Order Siluriformes, and not just restrict the definition of catfish to those fish in the family Ictaluridae.

FSIS does stronger food safety review than FDA

FDA is supposed to ensure the safety of imported seafood primarily by enforcing Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations.  However, according to GAO(2), in 2010, FDA visited only 5 of the 801 fish processing facilities in Vietnam.  The foreign inspections FDA does perform usually involve reviewing the processors’ HACCP plans and other records to ensure that the processors have considered drug residues as a hazard and have taken appropriate action.  FDA inspectors do not visit fish farms to evaluate drug use or controls, nor do they evaluate the capability, competence, and quality controls of laboratories used to sample seafood from fish farms to see if the fish farm is using unapproved drugs, because such fish farms are not considered processors and so not covered by HACCP regulations.

In contrast, FSIS regulations only allow a foreign country to export to the US after FSIS has determined that the exporting country has a food safety system equivalent to that in the US.  FSIS not only reviews documents provided by foreign governments to ensure that HACCP programs are being implemented, but they also conduct onsite evaluations of the governments’ inspections of processing facilities and the government’s audits of laboratories and controls over, among other things, drug residues, sanitation, and animal diseases.

Imported catfish may be more hazardous than domestic catfish

Catfish are an important agricultural commodity in the US, ranking as the sixth most frequently consumed seafood in the US in 2008(3).  We are particularly concerned about the rapid growth in imported catfish.  In the last 10 years, catfish imports have increased more than 16 fold, going from 8.2 million pounds in 2000(4) to more than 137 million pound in 2010(5).  In 2010, the imported catfish came from Vietnam, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Mexico; over 91% of the imports do not belong to the family Ictaluridae(6).  Indeed, Vietnam is the major source of catfish imports, particularly catfish from the family Pangassidae.

1The current FDA regulatory scheme is not adequate to prevent residues of illegal drugs in imported catfish.  The vast majority of imported catfish come from Vietnam and China.  According to GAO(7), FDA officials determined that Vietnam permits 38 drugs to be used in aquaculture, while the US only permits 6 drugs to be used.  Furthermore, all of the Vietnamese processing facilities that US FDA inspected had HACCP plans that stated that if a drug unapproved by the European Union is found in a seafood product, that product should be diverted to another market.  FDA officials concluded that this HACCP plan requirement could result in such products being imported into the US.  FDA asked Vietnam to test 100 percent of seafood products destined for the US for unapproved drugs such as nitrofurans and chloramphenicol.  The Vietnamese government responded that it performed 100 percent testing only for products intended for countries with which it had a bilateral agreement, of which the US was not one(8).

In 2009, FDA reported it collected drug residue testing for only 0.1 percent of all seafood products imported into the US.  Thus, 99.9% of imported fish are not tested at all.  Further, FDA doesn’t effectively implement what limited sampling it does do.  According to GAO(9), FDA had prioritized the testing of all catfish and catfish related species for residues of nitrofuran and had asked Vietnam to test all catfish exported to the US for nitrofurans.  Yet, between fiscal years 2006 and 2009 FDA did not analyze any catfish samples for nitrofurans.

Data from FDA’s own testing have shown presence of unapproved drugs in catfish imported from Vietnam, China and Indonesia.  In a report to Congress about enhanced aquaculture and seafood inspection , FDA noted that in 2007 6 imported catfish samples tested positive for fluoroquinolones, 12 tested positive for malachite green, and 2 tested positive for gentian violet(10).

FDA’s testing is so limited, they often do no tests for drugs that are illegal to use in US in aquaculture, but are permitted in Vietnam or China.  For example, China permits the use of tetracycline, while Vietnam permits the use of neomycin in aquaculture.  In 2010, the EU detected excessive levels of neomycin in imported catfish from Vietnam(11).  Since FDA includes neither tetracycline nor neomycin in its sampling program, it cannot say that catfish imported from Vietnam or China do not contain neomycin  or tetracycline residues, respectively.

Imported catfish may also raise the risk spread of antibiotic resistance.  Although no studies have been done on antibiotic resistance in Salmonella cultured from domestic catfish, such studies have been carried out overseas.  One study found that all Salmonella isolated from farmed finfish (including catfish) in Guangdong Province of China were resistant to erythromycin and penicillin; the most resistant isolate was resistant to 9 of 16 antibiotics tested(12).  This result suggests that antibiotic-resistant Salmonella are emerging in Chinese catfish.  Another study done of Salmonella in imported food found that Salmonella in catfish imported from Thailand were resistant to several antibiotics, including nalidixic acid, streptomycin, tetracycline, and kanamycin(13).  A study in press about integrated pig-fish farms in Vietnam found that the use of medicated feeds for pigs could exacerbate the problem of antibiotic resistance.  The study found that when the pigs in the integrated pig-fish farms were fed medicated feed containing tetracycline and enrofloxacin (both illegal to be used in aquaculture in the US, but commonly used in pig feed in Vietnam), the level of antibiotic resistance to enrofloxacin or naladixic acid found in E. coli and Enterococcus spp. from the water-sediment samples increased dramatically, with frequencies reaching 60-80%(14).

Further studies are needed to identify the prevalence of FDA unapproved and banned drugs in imported catfish, and the potential for increased antibiotic resistance to be found in pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, from the imported catfish.  Thus, imported catfish may be more hazardous than domestic catfish and so should be inspected and tested at least as frequently, if not more frequently, than domestic catfish.  Given this potential increased risk from imported catfish, this regulation should ensure that all imported catfish are inspected.  To do this, USDA must define catfish to be any fish from the Order Siluriformes.

Catfish refers to all fish in the Order Siluriformes

As for the definition of catfish, we believe that USDA should define catfish to be any fish that is in the Order Siluriformes, and not just restrict the definition of catfish to those fish in the family Ictaluridae.  The Order Siluriformes consists of 36 families.  Taxonomists, and biologists in general, refer to Siluriformes collectively as “catfishes.”  We feel that USDA should follow established scientific practice that defines “catfish” as all fish of the order Siluriformes.  If USDA restricts “catfish” to only the fishes in family Ictaluridae, then FSIS would not be able to require inspection of the catfishes from other families, such as species within the family Pangasiidae, aka “giant catfishes,” (e.g. basa (Pangasius bocourti), tra (P. hypophthalamus), or swai (P. micronemus)), or a species within the Clariidae, aka air breathing catfishes, such as hybrid Clarias macrocehpalus; all these species are raised in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries for domestic consumption and export. 

Indeed, defining catfish as only those fish in the family Ictaluridae would mean that only 70% of catfish consumed in the US, and less than 10% of foreign catfish imported to the US in 2010(15) would be inspected.  Given the potential for increased food safety risk from imported catfish, allowing more than 90% of such imports not to be inspected should be unacceptable.

            The giant catfishes and the air breathing catfish raised in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries are similar in appearance and habits to the smaller Ictaluridae and can be farmed in a similar manner.  For both taxonomic and food safety reasons, USDA should include giant catfish and air breathing catfish as well as smaller ones in its definition, i.e. the entire Order Siluriformes.


(1)Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, is  an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. To achieve this mission, we test, inform, and protect. To maintain our independence and impartiality, Consumers Union accepts no outside advertising, no free test samples, and has no agenda other than the interests of consumers. Consumers Union supports itself through the sale of our information products and services, individual contributions, and a few noncommercial grants.  Over 8  million people subscribe to Consumer Report or Consumer Reports online.

(2) GAO.  2011.  Seafood Safety:  FDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Imported Seafood and Better Leverage Limited Resources.  GAO-11-286.  Government Accounting Office, Washington, D.C.

(3) National Fisheries Institute.  2009.  Top 10 consumed seafoods.  At:  www.aboutseafood.com/about/about-seafood/Top-10-Consumed-Seafoods

(4) National Aquaculture Statistics Service.  2001.  Catfish Processing.  At:  http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/CatfProc//2000s/2001/CatfProc-04-20-2001.pdf

(5) National Aquaculture Statistics Service.  2011.  Catfish Processing.  At:  http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/catf0611.pdf

(6) National Aquaculture Statistics Service.  2011.  Op cit. 

(7) GAO.  2011.  Op cit.

(8) IBID

(9) IBID

(11) IBID

(12) Broughton, EI and DG Walker.  2009.  Prevalence of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in fish in Guangdong, China.  Foodborne Pathog. Dis., 6:  519-521.

(13) Zhao, S, Datta, AR, Ayers, S, Friedman, S, Walker, RD and DG White.  2003.  Antimicrobial-resistant Salmonella serovars isolated from imported foods.  International Journal of Food Microbiology, 84:  87-92.

(14) Dang, STT, Petersen, A, Trong, DV, Chu, HTT and A Dalsgaard.  2011.  Impact of medicated feed on the development of antimicrobial resistant bacteria in integrated pig-fish farms in Vietnam.  Applied Environmental Microbiology,inpress doi:10.1128/AEM.02975-10

(15) National Aquaculture Statistics Service.  2011.  Op cit.