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Inspect pangasius, let chips fall where they may

The U.S. catfish industry has complained frequently over the years about Vietnam and other Asian countries dumping a catfish cousin known as pangasius on U.S. markets at prices significantly below their cost of production. A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce report highlighted in a Memphis Commercial Appeal article indicates that it hasn’t abated.

This will likely not be the end of the long and rancorous exchange between Asian and U.S. producers.

If you’ll recall, several years ago, a U.S. catfish advocacy group put together a stomach-churning video showing Vietnamese pangasius swimming around in the polluted Mekong River, downstream from raw sewage entering the waterway.

A Vietnam advocacy group responded with its own version of the fish being raised, harvested and processed in idyllic settings along the very same Mekong River, while a music track played sappy instrumentals of American Bandstand favorites like Listen to Rhythm of the Falling Rain and Love You More Than I Can Say.

To slow the stream of imports, the U.S. catfish industry fought for labeling of imported pangasius, known as basa, tra or swai, hoping this would turn the U.S. consumer against the imports, but it didn’t. The Asian fish had captured a good piece of the market.

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The U.S. catfish industry asked restaurants to place signage indicating that only U.S. farm-raised catfish were served there. The Asian invasion kept coming, undercutting profits for U.S. producers.

Finally, the U.S. catfish industry hit upon an issue that seemed to resonate, after several states found harmful substances in the imported fish.  In 2008, Congress voted to require USDA oversight of all “catfish,” imported and domestic, to insure that foreign imports are safe for consumers. Currently, imported pangasius are under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration.

The program never got off the ground.

Opponents contended the program is duplicitous and constituted a trade barrier, which could lead to losses of soybean exports to Asia. Soon the small U.S. catfish industry, which consists of only a few southern-tier states, was swimming against a rising tide of acrimony from all fronts, including some groups who would typically support the industry.

Despite the flack, the underlying question still remains – is imported pangasius safe to eat? Just recently, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Florida found banned antibiotics and carcinogens in as much as 44 percent of the pangasius they inspected.

To get answers, let’s let FDA run one-time, random but rigorous tests of pangasius and other imported fish from each of the Asian regions. If banned or dangerous substances are confirmed at dangerous levels, then I’m sure that pangasius supporters would not put potential trade losses above the health of U.S. consumers. If no such substances are found, let the fish – and chips – fall where they may.

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