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Chinese exporters seek to shed taint

To keep their catfish in US markets, some of China's top producers seek independent ratings.

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Normally, the catfish thrashing the water as they gulp down their feed at Sun Zhongren's fish farm in this idyllic corner of southern China would have ended up on American dinner tables.

From the net cages in this reservoir, they would have been taken to be skinned, gutted, and filleted on a production line at the Baiyang fish-packing plant in nearby Nanning. But that line, installed earlier this year, has been idled by the latest health scare surrounding Chinese exports.

The US Food and Drug Administration last week effectively banned Chinese catfish imports, citing contamination with carcinogenic medicine and unacceptable antibiotic residues.

The US ban on several varieties of fish comes after a number of export safety scandals involving products such as fruit juices, toothpaste, toy trains, and tires, which have tattered the reputation of China's inspection regime.

Now, Baiyang and other top catfish producers are striking out on a novel route that could offer a solution for other export products: They are asking a Swiss inspection and certification company to vouch for the safety of their food.

"We have realized that the US market does not trust Chinese government examinations, so we prefer third-party certification," says Kevin Wang, head of the Chinese Catfish Association, a producer group. "That way we can guarantee quality. Without it, we cannot."

Mr. Wang is in discussions with SGS, a well-known global company based in Geneva, which provides testing and certification services that help traders evaluate potential suppliers.

Baiyang, the largest fish-packing plant in the Guangxi autonomous province bordering Vietnam, has also jumped the gun. The firm approached the local SGS office last May, and is negotiating a deal for SGS inspectors to monitor its operations, according to Wang Ning, Baiyang's general manager.

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