Catfish exporters suffering as Guyana fails to meet US Food standards

Heeralall Sukdeo, owner of Sukdeo and Sons Fishing Enterprise, says that local companies have suffered significant losses since they can no longer export catfish to the United States of America and he predicts even more severe ramifications if measures are not put in place to address the ban.

The United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) has implemented a ban on catfish imports from Guyana and other countries. The exporters from the various countries are required by the US Food and Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) to provide documentation to verify that their respective country’s inspection system is equivalent to the US standards, or that the degree of its public health system is equivalent to the USA’s.

However, while the local authorities have attempted to comply with the request, the country has fallen short of the US standards in three areas: the presence of inspectors; insufficient documentation detailing verification of each step in the sanitation and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP); and insufficient documentation specifying how the industry manages adulterated (tainted) catfish products.

Sukdeo, of Annandale, East Coast Demerara, lamented that the ban is putting severe pressure on the exporters who focus heavily on sending their raw and smoked catfish to the United States.

According to Sukdeo, who has been in the catfish-exporting business since 1985, he has never witnessed a ban on the exportation of the fish and says that it is currently creating havoc in the industry.

“Right now the company close and can’t work since the ban. Is about three months or so that we haven’t been able to ship. We Guyanese love catfish, but the Caribbean Indians and Africans dem love dem catfish,” Sukdeo said, while indicating that more than 40% of his exports went to the US market.

In addition to the American market, Sukdeo stated that he also taps into the Canadian, Barbadian, Surinamese and Venezuelan markets, but they cannot substitute for the loss of the US market.

“There is not enough space in the Guyanese market to use the amount of catfish and smoke fish in the country. No other country in any other part of the world got catfish like this country. Me born in fishing and exporting, and I never see any catfish like what we got,” Sukdeo claimed, while pointing out that when he was exporting, he would usually send about 100,000 lbs of frozen catfish to New York every month.

“I’m one of the biggest exporters in the country, and we are also freezing for other people who ship to America. I personally used to ship about 50,000 pounds and the other four, who are freezing at my company, adds up to about 100,000 pounds per month coming out from my company to America, which is the biggest market for we,” Sukdeo said.

He explained that currently his business has been stagnated since he is unable to access a large portion of the market he used to tap. As a result, he was forced to dump thousands of pounds of frozen and smoked catfish.

“Right now the company close and can’t work since they ban it. Since then we haven’t been able to ship and I got two forty foot container to throw away today, and that is thousands of US dollars. They have more people who got about the same amount and them hoping to get anybody to buy it because they don’t have enough space here for it,” he said.

Sukdeo added that if the situation continues as it is, over 70 persons from his company, alone, are expected to be laid off, and hundreds of fishermen are already being affected since they have stopped fishing for catfish.

“The big market that we accustomed to isn’t accessible anymore, so dem fishermen can’t do anything. If they come with a whole set nobody not going to buy from them because we can’t ship it nowhere,” Sukdeo added.

The fish exporter explained that currently he is trying to supplement the lost market by shipping more to the Suriname market, however, they are unwilling to take the smoked fish since they prefer to smoke it themselves. Despite being able to flood the other markets with more fish, Sukdeo said that it will not make sense unless the ban is addressed, and they are able to tap into the market again.

In 2015, FSIS amended its regulations to establish a mandatory inspection programme for fish of the order Siluriformes and products derived from these species.

The amendment was the result of a 15-year battle by the Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) to curtail catfish imports from Vietnam. The US government had previously passed the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, which amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), to make ‘‘catfish’’ a species amenable to the FMIA, and therefore, subject to FSIS inspection, before removing the term ‘‘catfish,’’ so as to make ‘‘all fish of the order Siluriformes’’ subject to FSIS jurisdiction and inspection.

The 2015 standards, which became effective on March 1st, 2016, demand the presence of inspectors in (processing) plants for one-hour during an eight hour shift. According to the USDA website, though the standards became effective in 2016, a transitional period was granted before full enforcement commenced on September 1st, 2017.

Guyana’s Veterinary Public Health Director Dr Ozaye Dodson, was quoted in a Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) media release this week as saying, “Our (Fisheries) Act is broad, covering all species of fish. The US has specific regulations for the catfish species [and] there [have] been no changes to the local Act since 2003. There will have to be some adjustments to the Fisheries Act Inspection Manual and Regulations to bridge the gaps.” He also added that changes to the country’s Fisheries Act and Regulations will be taken shortly to the Attorney General’s Chambers and published in the Official Gazette.

According to the MoPH statement Dodson described the temporary ban as a “protectionist measure” by that country’s public health system and the catfish farmers who have invested heavily to develop the industry there.

The US Embassy here says that Guyana was notified since November 2015 of the steps that needed to be taken to avoid a ban on the export of catfish to the United States but that the country is still not in compliance.

In a statement on Wednesday, the US Embassy said that the notification came more than 18 months before the amended regulations pertaining to catfish (siluriformes) were to take effect.

“We even gave Guyana an extension until February 3, 2018 to comply with the new regulations,” the statement said, while pointing out that most countries in the hemisphere have already complied with the regulations and the US believes that Guyana eventually “can and will comply as well.”

“We understand that the Government of Guyana is working on complying but it has not fully met the standards of the new processes associated with the regulations and until it does we cannot accept any catfish from Guyana,” the Embassy said, while adding that the US has offered technical assistance to help Guyanese fishermen and women to comply.

The embassy says that the offer still stands but it cannot be accomplished overnight and the goal of the US is to ensure consistency in food safety regulations across products and countries, and to protect marine life for future generations.

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