Over the years, Vietnam has been consistently at battle with the United States over the trade of catfish. The country’s ability to export catfish for a lesser price has made them a top exporter and caused the domestic industry to contract by 60% in the last decade. With local catfish farmers losing money, a so called war was waged starting in 2008 with the introduction of a catfish inspection program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And although the program has yet to go into effect, numerous Pacific exporters are already protesting its introduction.
The Inspection program was initially introduced through the 2008 farm bill as a result of increased competition and feed costs for local catfish farmers. Just this year, Congress has begun to set deadlines for the Department to put forth specific inspection rules. Despite obvious reasons for regulation, Senator Thad Cochran also states that imports coming from the southeast region of Asia “have been found to contain dangerous chemicals and substances” that were banned for use in the U.S.
So far, no inspections have taken place yet $20 billion has been spent setting up the office. Following its introduction, analysts project that annually $14 million will be spent to run the program alone. This could be due to the rigor of the Agriculture Department’s inspections in comparison to the FDA, which spends $700,000 each year with its current seafood inspection office. With the finalization plans for the new trans-pacific trade block by President Obama, the high cost of this program is not the only aspect delaying plans.
Besides the U.S., this trans-pacific partnership is planned in include countries such as Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei. Due to a variety of disputes similar to the current catfish war, the trade dispute has been delayed multiple times. Hoping to be a key component of the partnership, Vietnam has hired U.S. attorney James Bachus to plead their case. According to Bachus as well as 10 Asian-Pacific nations, the catfish inspection program violates international law. Diplomats from these nations all signed a letter stating that the program is a trade barrier that violates the obligations of the U.S. to World Trade Organization agreements.
Other nations such as the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia also signed the letter, but do not have catfish industries. So why is the issue pressing to them? To summarize, if the Department is able to regulate catfish imports to the U.S., they may be able to expand their regulation. Other seafood products are exported from these countries on a regular basis, and if more regulation is added, the local economies of many Asian-Pacific nations could potentially suffer.
Besides legally combating the program, Vietnam’s government has taken another action. Through the implementation of Decree 36, catfish exporters will be required to register contracts with the Pangasius Association in order to increase quality and safety standards. This safety net would allow Vietnam to continue to export catfish to the U.S., albeit at a higher cost. Even so, the ability to maintain the industry would ensure stability and help push the trade bloc agreement into action. But the cooperation of solely two countries will not be enough; it is up to U.S. congressmen to compromise with participating countries so that trade will still be a possibility as well as domestic production. Without negotiation, the catfish war in particular could continue to be a barrier to the Trans-Pacific trade bloc for the foreseeable future.