In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over regulating the catfish industry from the Food and Drug Administration. This change presented some major challenges to catfish processors in Louisiana.
Evelyn Watts, a food scientist with the LSU AgCenter, developed a curriculum and training program to get Louisiana processors compliant with the USDA standards to help them remain in business.
“The inspection standards are higher. The documentation is more stringent. They were required to develop protocols and keep records,” Watts said.
Much of the recordkeeping was new to the processors, and they needed help in developing recordkeeping systems that would meet the USDA’s specifications.
Some processors are small operations and did not have the financial means to develop their own recordkeeping system. That’s where Watts came in.
“They really don’t have thousands of dollars to pay a consultant to help them implement and develop a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan,” Watts said. “With the service we provide, they have this at no cost.”
Another hurdle facing processors is the influx of cheaper imported fish species that resemble catfish. These fish have common names such as basa, swai and tra.
While it is legal to sell these fish in Louisiana, they may not be sold or labeled as catfish. Regulations state only catfish native to North America can be sold as catfish.
Thomas Hymel, an AgCenter fisheries and Sea Grant agent, said some consumers and distributors are not fully aware of the regulations concerning the labeling of catfish.
“When a customer goes to a restaurant, and they see catfish, they’re expecting it is a domestic catfish,” Hymel said. “And legally, that’s what it has to be.”
Hymel was at Freshwater Seafood Market in Loreauville. The market processes mostly wild-caught blue and channel catfish. Hymel believes if more people understand the labeling of catfish, there will be a higher demand for the product.
“We’re hoping now we can really expand the production and market of these wild catfish, now that they are not being challenged as catfish by these imported species,” Hymel said.