Work underway since 2016 for compliance with revised US catfish standards

-fisheries dep’t head

Denzil Roberts

Guyana has been working towards compliance with the new standards for the export of catfish to the United States (US) since 2016, according to Head of the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture Denzil Roberts, who says the process is nearly completed.

Some local exporters have complained about losses due to the recent ban on catfish exports to the US.

The US Embassy said in a statement last week that the Guyana government had been notified of the amended regulations pertaining to catfish imports 18 months before the changes were slated 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.”

Speaking to Stabroek News yesterday, Roberts noted since “early 2016” the Fisheries Department has been working on getting in line with the new regulations. “The Veterinary Public Health Department is mandated by the Fisheries Act to deal with these aspects and we had to full up a self-reporting tool. We started the process, we sent it to them and they sent it back with some corrections and some more queries and whatever they asked us we had to give them legal documents,” said Roberts, who noted that over US$1 million in catfish and other species such as gillbacker is exported annually.

He explained that since the catfish are caught wild as compared to others that are farm raised, the Veterinary Public Health Department does not have specific inspection procedures for them.

“…So what we are trying to do is to align it to their regulations because they said our inspection system is not equivalent but we were not ignoring it. We were working from the inception to get it regulated,” Roberts added.

He noted that from the last correspondence that was sent to the department, there are three areas where the country has failed to meet the new standards: 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.

“We had to deal with it and the Director of Public Health is working on it as we speak,” Roberts added, while stating that he will be away from the country for a few days due to travel duties but when he returns they should have made significant progress.

He said that the different stakeholders will meet to “see the progress” but there would have to be “some adjustments in the fisheries product regulations and in our inspection manuals” and compliance with the new standards is expected soon.

In 2015, the US Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) amended its regulations to establish a mandatory inspection programme for fish of the order Siluriformes and products derived from these fish.

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 already 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 Embassy had also stated that while it understands that the Government of Guyana is working on complying with the new regulations but has not yet fully met the standards of the new process, an offer for technical assistance still stands.

When Roberts was questioned on whether help was sought from the FSIS, he noted that the problem is a domestic one. “We have to do this and it isn’t something that they are going to help us with because it is our inspection manuals that have to be revised. When we finish everything we have, we will send it to them and they will have to check it and will probably have to come and do some audits,” he noted.

Amanda Cauldwell, Public Affairs Officer of the Embassy, also related to Stabroek News that technical assistance is still available and will come through the USDA FSIS if it is requested. However, she was unable to state whether a request has been received from the Government of Guyana.

One of the catfish exporters, Heeralall Sukdeo, owner of Sukdeo and Sons Fishing Enterprise, has said that he is suffering major losses since the ban on exports is preventing him from exporting fish to his largest market.

He had stated that he and others usually export some 100,000 lbs per month and they now stand to lose thousands of dollars in foreign currency.

Sukdeo had also explained that since the US market, which contributes to more than 40% of the exports leaving the country, is no longer accessible, fishermen and other persons who support the industry have also stopped working. He had indicated that if changes aren’t made soon, then they will be forced to close the business down and lay off their staff.

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