- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

First, “beware toxic dog food”; now, “beware tainted catfish.”

Southern states are leading the charge against imported Chinese catfish contaminated with hazardous substances.

“Currently, all samples of the foreign catfish tested by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce have shown the presence of a banned substance,” said Commissioner Lester Spell Jr., who has halted sales in grocery stores after two antibiotics were found in frozen fillets.

“Consumers have the right to know if the food they are eating contains illegal drugs,” Dr. Spell said. “There is the possibility that these same adulterated fish are being offered to customers at hospitals, public schools, nursing homes and public restaurants.”

Last week, 14 out of 20 samples of Chinese catfish in Alabama also revealed antibiotics, prompting agriculture officials to stop grocery sales there as well.

Wal-Mart has removed all Chinese catfish from its stores nationwide, “to err on the side of caution,” said spokeswoman Karen Burk. Arkansas farming officials, meanwhile, announced yesterday that they would begin testing the imported fish immediately.

It’s a pretty big catch, however. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, imports of Chinese-farmed catfish grew from 3.8 million pounds in 2005 to almost 17 million pounds by 2006. The fish also are imported from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, where the catfish farming boom is threatening the nation’s freshwater supply.

Sometimes sold as generic “whitefish,” the frozen Asian fillets are significantly cheaper than American brands and command more than 30 percent of the annual $590 million catfish industry. This invasion has irked catfish farmers in 13 states, who contend that the foreign fish are raised in filthy waters and fed the same grain that compromised the nation’s pet food supply.

“The pet food incident has shined a light on an issue that already exists, and that is the fact that there are many contaminated products coming from China, not just wheat,” said Dick Stevens, president of Consolidated Catfish Cos., a Mississippi-based processor.

“It’s clear there’s a danger to our food supply. But there’s a real worry about catfish. Groceries require a country-of-origin label; restaurant menus do not. About 70 percent of the overall supply of commercial catfish is sold to restaurants. Sometimes diners don’t know what they’re getting,” said Jeff McCord, spokesman of the Catfish Farmers of America, a trade association.

Some unscrupulous restaurants, he added, substitute cheaper Asian catfish for grouper and other fish, prompting some state health departments to use DNA testing to detect the “counterfeit.”

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration issued alerts for some Chinese and Vietnamese fish found to contain four banned antibiotics plus malachite green and crystal violet — industrial dyes linked to cancer and to liver and kidney damage.

Consumer scares like toxic dog food, meanwhile, are perceived as cautionary tales. A survey of 1,172 adults in from New York-based ad agency J. Walter Thompson revealed that 68 percent said the contamination illustrated how vulnerable the U.S. food supply was to sabotage.

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