Alabama’s agriculture chief has banned the sale of basa catfish imported from Vietnam until tests for an illegal antibiotic are done, the latest salvo in support of the US catfish industry.
Alabama’s ban affects about 25 tons of imported farmed seafood, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said. He said it will remain in place until all of the basa is tested for the antibiotic, which is not allowed for agriculture uses in the United States.
At issue are antibiotics given to prevent disease in Vietnamese fish. The antibiotic 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 directly to humans to fight infections.
Sparks said he is also concerned that a consumer might be allergic to the antibiotic. He said federal food safety officials have a “zero tolerance” policy on these chemicals and that he was working with his counterparts in Louisiana and Mississippi to make sure imports are totally free of them.
A similar ban was ordered in Louisiana, where 355.5 tons of Vietnamese seafood has been taken off shelves since Aug. 12. Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner also warned shoppers from buying “foreign imported basa that may contain unapproved antibiotics.”
In Mississippi, Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell banned retail-store sales of basa from Vietnamese producers Vinh Long Aqua Processing and Aifex Seafood Industry on Wednesday, because those were the ones put on import alert by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Spell’s basa ban applies only in grocery stores and other retail outlets. Restaurants and wholesale distributors are regulated by the state Department of Health, Spell said.
“We will continue to test for adulterated products from additional sources in Vietnam,” Spell said. “I strongly urge people to stay away from basa fish products.”
In Alabama, inspectors were checking warehouses and taking samples to labs for testing, Sparks said.
The Louisiana department is forbidding sale of more than basa because in the past, another forbidden antibiotic, chloramphenicol, was found in crab from Vietnam as well as in basa, said Ashley Rodrigue, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Rodrigue said there is no way to say how many lots are in the basa, crab and other seafood taken from the shelves in Louisiana, because each manufacturer decides the size of its lots. One Louisiana laboratory has told state inspectors it could have results in four or five days; others may take more or less time, Rodrigue said.
The action by the agriculture offices in the three states, where catfish is a prominent industry, came after the US Food and Drug Administration found the forbidden antibiotics in import samples.
It came shortly after basa tied with Mississippi-grown catfish in a weekend taste test by a market research firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which wanted to check a smaller Mississippi State University study that found tasters preferred basa 3 to 1.
If tests continue to show the presence of forbidden chemicals, the imports will not be sold in Alabama, Sparks said.
Critics of the bans say they are not aimed at protecting the public’s health.
John Sackton, who runs the online seafood industry news service Seafood.com, told the Mobile Register the bans were “pure grandstanding,” aimed at turning consumers toward the Southern homegrown catfish.
But Jesse Chappell, a fisheries specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said the short-term effect will be to “create an even playing field” for US catfish farmers battling the lower-priced imports not subject to the same regulations.
Exporters must pay tariffs ranging from 37 to 64% on frozen basa fillets shipped to the United States since the Commerce Department and International Trade Commission have found in 2003 that Vietnam had dumped them on the US market below cost.
Basa are one of thousands of species of catfish around the w