MOBILE, Ala. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is nearing its decision on banning basa catfish from Vietnam, which has already been taken off the shelves in three Southeastern states.
FDA spokesman Mike Herndon said Thursday a decision could come next week on how the agency will rule on the multimillion-dollar catfish imports. The agency is under pressure from an Arkansas congressman for a nationwide ban.
“Right now it’s a state issue,” Herndon said in a telephone interview from FDA’s office in Rockville, Md.
Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana banned Vietnam basa catfish after officials detected antibiotics given to prevent disease in Vietnamese fish.
Herndon said FDA has the option of issuing an import alert or seizing the product “or a combination of both.”
If an import alert is issued, he said, any future basa fish from those areas of the world would not be allowed into the United States. “FDA will make a determination in the next week or so what we’re doing to do with it,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., this week asked the FDA to temporarily ban the sale of basa catfish from Vietnam nationwide because of the health concerns. As of Thursday, Arkansas had not banned the product.
The antibiotic at issue is not allowed in food in the United States, Canada and Europe out of concern that the germs the antibiotic fights would become resistant, making the antibiotic less effective when given to humans to fight infections.
The basa samples that led to the state bans contained ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin, which are antibiotics that transfer resistant microorganisms to humans and lead to the development of the infectious disease Campylobacter, which can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever.
Ho Quoc Luc, president of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, said in a statement Wednesday the state bans would not have a major impact on catfish exports to the U.S. because they don’t import that much product.
However, he warned that if the issue is not resolved then public opinion about Vietnamese catfish could hurt sales.
Luc said Vietnam worked hard to meet the seafood safety standards set by customers, but could not rule out that antibiotics were used by catfish farmers.
Catfish exports to the United States were badly affected after the U.S. imposed a tariff of up to 64 percent two years ago following a lawsuit filed against Vietnamese catfish farmers, claiming they had dumped the fish on the American market at lower than market price.
Luc said Vietnam has expanded its catfish markets to Europe and the Middle East since then.
Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said he’s concerned that a consumer might be allergic to the antibiotic. Alabama’s ban affected about 25 tons of imported farmed seafood, Sparks said earlier this month.
On Thursday, Sparks said his department’s Aug. 12 stop sale order involves giving notice to warehouses that they are to hold their Vietnamese imports for sample testing until further notice. A recall of products from retail markets and restaurants has not been issued, but could be if testing shows positive results.
In Louisiana, 355.5 tons of Vietnamese seafood has been taken off shelves. Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner, Lester Spell, also banned the product.
“I strongly urge consumers to stay away from basa fish products,” Spell said in a statement Tuesday. Basa samples collected in Mississippi are being tested at the Mississippi State Chemical Laboratory in Starkville. Results of that testing are not yet available. But Mississippi issued its ban based on findings in Louisiana involving two Vietnamese fish processors.
Infinity Seafoods Inc. CEO Andrew Forman of Boston, Mass., who imports basa catfish from Vietnam, said, “The problem is the benchmark price of domestic catfish is high. Basa has proven to be a viable alternative. It is a price war.”
Most U.S. farm-raised catfish are produced in the Southeastern states.
According to the Mississippi-based Catfish Institute, basa catfish is not raised under the same high standards as U.S. farm-raised catfish. Federal reports show that sales of U.S. farm-raised catfish totaled 300 million pounds in 2004, compared to basa sales of 9 million pounds for that year.