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Catfish Farmers Want Truth in Labeling on Alabama Menus

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Farm-raised Catfish is big business in Alabama. Farmers in Alabama and Mississippi grow some of the best grain-fed catfish in the world in carefully managed farm ponds across the State. Alabamians have grown up eating this catfish. It is the staple of a Southern diet.

However, when you go to a restaurant in Alabama, the catfish you order may not be an Alabama catfish, and worse, that catfish may not even be a catfish.

While Alabama and Mississippi fish farmers were responsible for inventing most of the farming techniques and technology used today, the world has embraced those techniques and methods to grow their own fish. Thanks to global trade agreements, commercial fish farms in Asia often export their fish back to the United States and Alabama.

Asian farmers have found that the Channel catfish is not the only species that will grow well in a catfish pond. Pangasius, Basa, Tra and Swai are also farmable fish, which scientists do include in the siluriformes order.

Under current U.S. law, if scientists classify a fish as a siluriforme of the family ictaluridae, you can call it a catfish and sell it in the U.S.

In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, laid the foundations for the modern biological naming scheme known as binomial nomenclature.

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For example, humans are classified as the species sapiens, in the genus homo, in the family of hominidae, in the suborder anthripoidea, we are a member of the order primates, our class is mammal, we join the fish, snakes, and birds in the subphylum vertebrates, our phylum is chordates, and we are members of the vast animal kingdom that include cockroaches, spiders, sea horses, oysters, sea cucumbers, and even corals.

Now, if you went to an adoption agency to adopt a child and they sent you a lemur or a spider monkey instead of a human child this would be considered by the courts to be fraud.  Similarly a zoo who purchased a gorilla from another zoo would want to receive a gorilla not an orangutan or a baboon.  All primates after all are not exactly alike or even very similar.

Similarly if I went to a restaurant and ordered chicken and they served me turkey, quail, guinea, partridge or pheasant (all birds scientists classify as members of the order, galliformes) I would think they got the order wrong.

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Somehow in the world of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) if you hit the right order of fish that was close enough for government work.  Bread it, deep fry it and put enough tartar sauce on it and maybe you won’t taste the difference.

In 2003, Congress passed a law in 2003 preventing the imported Pangasius (a species of Shark catfish) from being labelled as catfish, as well as imposing additional tariffs on the imported fish. Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruling, only species from the family Ictaluridae can be sold as true catfish. As a result, the Vietnamese exporters of this fish now label their products sold in the U.S. as Basa fish or Bocourti. This has not always translated well to our restaurant menus.

While Alabama law can never supersede Federal law, a new proposed law has passed the Alabama Senate Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee that would require Alabama restaurants to provide menu labels on all fish of the siluriformes order. SB 335 is sponsored by Senator Bobby Singleton (D) from Greensborough. SB 335 would also require country of origin menu labels.

Maybe I would prefer fried Basa from Vietnam over American farm raised catfish at the place across town. But, if so, this law would require that the restaurant tell me whether or not the fish they are serving is American Farm Raised Catfish.

The Alabama Political Reporter attended the public hearing on this legislation on February 26.

The Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee Tom Whatley (R) from Lee County said that the catfish industry is a multi-million dollar industry in Alabama.

Senator Singleton said, “I am from Western Alabama and catfish has been the livelihood of my people for many years.” Singleton said that in the last year and a half, one of the major plants shut down, taking 250 to 350 jobs with it. We produce a great product, but we are facing foreign infiltration into the market.  As we grow more species of fish are coming into the market. “This is more of a marketing piece of legislation, trying to help the people of West Alabama.”

Chairman Whatley said, “Every committee member has come to me and talked to me about this vote.”

Townsend Kyser said, I am a catfish farmer in Greensborough, Alabama. My family has been raising catfish since 1965. The catfish industry is responsible for 6000 jobs in Alabama, but we have lost 2000 jobs in the last 5 years. This is a $152 million industry, however it has shrunk 50% in the last five years but people are still consuming the same amount of catfish or a similar fish. “All we are asking for is an equal playing field. The U.S. catfish industry provides the safest and most reliable seafood in the world.”

Kyser said that many restaurants in Alabama are selling an unsafe product. We want consumers to know what they are choosing from. We want to be on an equal playing field.

Rick Brown with the Alabama Retail Association said, “We visited this about five years ago and it was a hard fought battle. We agreed to signs…I want to see the catfish industry succeed…They want us to change our menus…All this species stuff I have not been told we have a problem with that.”  Brown said that printing new menus and going out to Kinkos every time a new order of fish came from a different supplier would be an excessive burden on Alabama restaurants. “Y’all are asking us to raise our overhead to help your industry.”

Sen. Shadrack McGill (R) from Woodville asked, “Would the catfish industry agree to pay for the new menus?”

Sen. Singleton said, “I don’t normally speak for the catfish industry, but I’d say no.”

A representative with the Alabama Catfish farmers said, “We will pay for any of the signs and placards for anybody that serves U.S. farm raised catfish.”

Sen. Billy Beasley (D) from Clayton said that he was at a local restaurant and “I was concerned about where the catfish is coming from.” The waiter and the manager said that they had no idea about where the seafood comes from, so he asked to see an invoice.  The invoice said the product comes from Indonesia.

“It does not cost that much to put on the menu where the product comes from.  I am in full support of this bill.”

Sen. Phil Williams (R) from Rainbow City said here is my concern.  We have top of the River and the Fish Market in my district. They may order from one place one day and order from another supplier the next day. If the fish comes from different countries, do they have to get different menus? This could be cutting the knees out from under one industry to help another.

Former State Rep. Jim Barton (R) who is now a registered lobbyist said, “I am from the Gulf Coast where we bring much of the fish in through the port and I have owned a seafood restaurant. If I normally order from brand x and they don’t have what I need, so I call brand y. I don’t have time to print new menus by the time that I start serving lunch at 11:00 am. I took a look at the 35 species of fish. I don’t know what any of these are. It looks like a catfish to me.”  Barton warned that it will impede the ability to do business if you pass this legislation.

Butch Wilson from Dallas County is a fifth generation farmer.  Wilson said, “This is a Food safety and jobs issue.”  Wilson said less than 2% of your fish is inspected at the ports and 92% of your seafood is imported.

Deborah Miller said that she represented the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Alliance.  “We wholeheartedly support the Alabama Catfish.”  Miller said that the legislation could be onerous on the industry.  “Nobody has come to our organization. This is the first we have heard of it.”  Miller said that she wanted to find solutions without going to the legislature.  “Restaurants have more of a regulatory burden than any other business.”

Ellie Taylor with the Alabama Grocers Association said, “This bill also impacts the grocery industry in our delis. We wholeheartedly support the Alabama catfish industry.” Taylor said We invite the catfish industry to meet with us,” to find ways to market their product “Instead of overburdening the industry with over regulation. We want to see Alabama products succeed in the market.”

Will Pierce said, “My family have been catfish producers in Dallas County for over 40 years.”  “This is mainly a matter of food safety.”  Hazardous chemicals are often used in farms overseas and less than 1% are tested. “Tainted fish are getting into the food supply.”  Pierce said that the proposed legislation would not prohibit restaurants from selling imported fish we just wanted people to know the country of origin of the fish they are eating.

Sen. Whatley said, “Both sides made great points and appear close to an agreement.”

Sen. Paul Sanford (R) from Huntsville aid, “This doesn’t go along with the spirit of the red tape reduction act.  “I don’t have one piece of evidence in front of me that there is unsafe product on tables here in Alabama.  I do understand that maybe there is not enough testing at the port,” but that is best handled at the federal level.  “If there is unsafe product coming into Alabama nobody on this committee wants to see that happen.”

The committee carried the legislation over for a week on an 8 to 1 vote so that the catfish, retail and restaurant industry representatives could meet on compromise legislation.

Chairman Whatley said, “This is an important issue and hope to bring it up next week.”

After that week passed the Alabama Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee unanimously passed SB 335 on Thursday, March 6.

Alabama Farmers Federation Catfish Division Director Rick Oates said, “Catfish farming is an important business in Alabama, but our farmers are hurting from foreign competition of inferior catfish-like species that are often marketed as catfish.  Requiring the U.S. farm-raised catfish label will give consumers greater peace of mind in knowing the food they buy meets the nation’s stringent food safety standards. We really appreciate the Alabama Retail Association for working with us on this legislation to ensure it’s beneficial for consumers, farmers and retailers.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Health

COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise

Eddie Burkhalter

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COVID-19 Corona Influenza Virus Molecules Image Stock Photo

The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9. 

UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.

“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said. 

Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.

Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.

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Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.

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Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”

Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.

“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”

Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.

“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.

Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.

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News

Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology

Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

John H. Glenn

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The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.

Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”

The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.

Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.

“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”

Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.

“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.

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Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”

Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.

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The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.

“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”

District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.

“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”

District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” 
Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”

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Elections

Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies

Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

Josh Moon

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Alabama Sen. Doug Jones speaks during the Democratic National Convention.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C. 

Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.  

But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump. 

“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”

Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”

Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home. 

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“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat. 

“I rest my case.”

You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Economy

New unemployment claims decreased last week

Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.

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