Catfish row threatens to derail US-Pacific trade deal07 July, 2014 –
TEN Asian and Pacific nations have told the Office of the United States Trade Representative that the Agriculture Departments catfish inspection programme violates international law, and their objections could hamper the Obama administrations efforts to reach a major Pacific trade agreement by the end of next year.
They say that the inspection program is a trade barrier erected under the guise of a food safety measure and that it violates the United States obligations under World Trade Organisation agreements.
Among the countries protesting are Vietnam and Malaysia, which are taking part in talks for the trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and have the ability to derail or hold up those negotiations.
The complaints are outlined in a letter signed by diplomats from the 10 countries. The letter does not threaten retaliation, but it stresses that the American catfish programme stood in the way of the trade talks.
But the letter expresses the concern that the inspection programme could lead the Agriculture Department to expand its ability to regulate seafood exports to the United States, catfish or not.
Many of these countries are looking to see what happens to Vietnam on the catfish issues, and what precedence it might set for other trade deals in the region, said Jeffrey J Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and the co-author of a book on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The US, and eleven countries on both sides of the Pacific as well as Australia, New Zealand and Brunei are still negotiating the trade pact, which has been repeatedly delayed.
The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers recently hired James Bacchus, a former chairman of the World Trade Organisations appeals panel, to prepare a possible legal challenge to the catfish inspection programme.
Im confident that Vietnam would have a case before the WTO if they decided to bring one, said Bacchus, a former United States House member from Florida who is now a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig in Washington.
The inspection programme was inserted into the 2008 farm bill at the urging of catfish farmers, who have been hurt by competition from both Vietnam and China and by the rising cost of catfish feed.
The domestic catfish industry has shrunk by about 60 per cent since its peak about a decade ago, and in the past few years about 20 per cent of American catfish farming operations have closed.
The catfish industry and lawmakers, led by Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, fought for the new office, saying it was needed to protect Americans from eating fish raised in unsanitary conditions or contaminated with drugs.