New restrictions on imported catfish could remove them from supermarkets, restaurants and dinner tables altogether by the end of the year.
The controversy involves pangasius, a catfish native to Southeast Asia that has slowly grown its U.S. market share in recent years. The lower-priced import, along with higher corn prices, contributed to a declining market share for American catfish.
That's likely to shift once long-sought changes to regulatory oversight of the catfish industry take effect, a move that’s expected next month.
U.S. catfish producers supported moving oversight from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Agriculture. The USDA rules for catfish are likely to be much stronger than current FDA regulations and could suspend pangasius imports altogether in 2015.
Supporters of the changes said they're necessary to protect both consumer safety and the reputation of the U.S. catfish industry.
"There’s a lack of safety controls outside the U.S.," Dickie Stevens, the executive at a Mississippi catfish producer, told the Wall Street Journal. "The domestic catfish industry has been tarred with the same brush."
Critics, however, fired back that imported catfish presented minimal safety concerns in the past and raised questions of protectionism.
"For years, there has been an ongoing attempt to block imports and thus stifle competition," Lisa Weddig of the National Fisheries Institute told the Journal. "The food safety part of the equation is a charade."
Although the changes could effectively eliminate overseas competition, reports warn U.S. producers could be hit will millions in costs to comply with stricter USDA inspections. That could drive some catfish farms out of the industry altogether and cut jobs in largely rural areas of the American South.
"This is the quintessential example of be careful what you ask for,” NFI spokesman Gavin Gibbons told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the issue could also affect ongoing negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which includes both the U.S. and Vietnam, the top importer of pangasius.
Analysts warned the issue could curb the ability of the U.S. to achieve other goals in the agreement, while others said catfish controversy could ultimately go to the World Trade Organization.