More descriptive labels may be coming to catfish products in stores and restaurants after a voice vote in the House Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday easily advanced a bill to the House floor.
Proponents contend the legislation will protect Arkansas’s catfish industry – the third largest in the nation - by requiring non-U.S. fish to be labeled “imported.” Catfish is the state’s the 15th largest agricultural commodity in terms of value (and the largest aquaculture product) according to the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture.
Carter Harrison, a caterer who has worked with the industry-group Catfish Farmers of Arkansas, testified in favor of the bill.
“Our competition is buying a cheaper, un-inspected foreign fish and taking advantage of the good reputation of U.S. farm raised catfish,” said Harrison.
The number of acres devoted to catfish farming in the U.S. has declined nearly 40 percent since 2008, with Asian imports rising.
The label “catfish-like species” would also be applied to several related fish, primarily from Asia, that are sometimes sold without distinction. The wording in the bill of the “catfish-like” label provision worried Republican Representative John Payton of Wilburn, “would you want your Arkansas grain-fed, farm-raised catfish to be labeled as a ‘catfish-like product?’”
Rep. Payton interpreted section 3 of the bill to mean the phrase “catfish-like” would be attached alongside the word “catfish” even for fish guaranteed to be catfish and not a related species.
25 (a) No catfish or catfish-like product shall not be offered for
26 direct retail sale for human consumption by a processor, distributor, or
27 retailer unless the catfish or catfish-like product name is specifically
28 labeled in the following manner:
29 (1) “Farm-Raised Catfish or Catfish-like Species”
Fellow Republican Representative Stephen Meeks of Greenbrier also read the bill's language in the same manner. Both Meeks and Payton ultimately voted for the measure after assurances to the contrary by the bill's sponsor, Democratic Representative Michael John Gray of Augusta. Gray told Payton that the “catfish-like” line would not appear on products determined to be actual catfish.
“Everybody else that’s looked at this has not seen that to be the intent nor the consequences of the bill but I think it’s a fair point and worth asking," said Gray.
After the bill passed Rep. Gray consulted with the Bureau of Legislative Research and said he is still comfortable with the wording of the labels, insisting they will either read "catfish" or "catfish-like" but not both. However, Gray said he would be open to a clarification amendment being introduced if the bill makes it to the Senate.
Joey Lowery a catfish farmer for 30 years near Searcy spoke beyond the economics of the scaled creature and pointed to it as a cultural touchstone.
“Catfish is a staple of community events and I can’t imagine a campaign being run in this state without some catfish fries being involved.”