The Catfish Institute of the U.S. is spearheading a drive to require that country of origin labels for imported food be displayed on restaurant menus. The institute says congressional hearings and ongoing news reports of health threats from China suggest the federal government can't effectively protect Americans from contaminated food imports. The labels, according to the institute, would assist consumers with self-protection.
Such labels would also help protect the Louisiana seafood industry from unfair foreign competition.
The problem is particularly acute for Americans who eat catfish regularly. Cheap and often contaminated fish imported from Asia have captured about one-third of the catfish market in the U.S., the institute says. Seventy percent of catfish is consumed in restaurants, where there is no obligation to identify on menus the country of origin.
The current Congressional session will resume shortly, and we hope our readers will contact their senators and representatives to urge passage of a committee-approved bill mandating country of origin labels on restaurant menus.
A Catfish Institute survey shows that 96 percent of consumers would like to know if the catfish served in restaurants is imported.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, Chinese catfish have been found to contain a number of illegal substances including malachite green and crystal violet, strong industrial dyes and known carcinogens used by Asian fish farmers to kill fungus and microorganisms. Banned fluoroquinolone antibiotics have also been found. This antibiotic family is banned in the U.S. for use in food because consumers quickly build-up a resistance to the drugs, rendering them ineffective when needed for medical treatment.
The FDA says it is doing a good job of keeping dangerous products out of the food supply. Yet Alabama officials have checked 94 samples of Chinese catfish since March and found that 41 tested positive for fluoroquinolones. Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana also have found banned drugs in imported seafood.
According to The New York Times, FDA personnel "inspect less than 1 percent of all imported foods and conduct laboratory analysis on only a tiny fraction of those."
Entry reviewers at one FDA field office have so many items to screen that they typically have less than 30 seconds to decide whether an import needs closer scrutiny, according to the Times.
Congress will take up the labeling bill when the session resumes. Opponents will argue that cost of complying will be prohibitive.
Other imported food products are labeled, however, without the adverse effects predicted by opponents.
With the health threats identified in Asian products and the FDA's inability to provide adequate checks on imports, Americans need to be able to protect themselves. Identifying the country of origin of seafood on restaurant menus will help to guarantee such protection. Along with the labels, we need to push for better resources for the FDA.