Outside of an act of Congress, Animal Equality has few options to force Yazoo City’s Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish to stop processing practices the group says are inhumane.

The California-based international animal rights organization says Mississippi animal cruelty laws make clear commercially farmed catfish are protected. It cites a section of the statute that addresses protections for all animals other than cats and dogs, though not specifically mentioning catfish. 

Animal Equality said its main gripe is that processing is set up in a way that too often leaves the catfish awake at slaughter, an outcome that follows an electrocution that is supposed to render the fish senseless.

The group’s quest for change hit a wall in early May after John Donaldson, a retired Yazoo City lawyer who handles misdemeanor cases in county court, said he wanted no part in prosecuting Simmons Catfish, not when the company says the group’s complaints are groundless. The Yazoo County Sheriff’s Office referred the complaint, according to Animal Equality.

“I responded, ‘In Mississippi, we like to eat catfish, thank you very much,’” Donaldson said in a recent interview.

“I’m very good friends with Harry Simmons,” added Donaldson, referring to the founder and owner of the 40-year-old catfish enterprise.

Simmons Catfish and its workforce of 150 people are a “very important” part of Yazoo County’s economy, he said, and acknowledged representing the company while in private practice.

The prosecutor called the animal rights advocates outsiders who “really just want to meddle.”

Donaldson is ignoring state statutes that extend cruelty protections to animals other than cats and dogs, said Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.

“Section 1 of the Cruelty to Animals chapter explicitly states that it is to be applied to any

living creature except for dogs and cats who are separately provided for in” another section of the law, Hessler wrote in an analysis for the animal rights group.

The “logical conclusion” is that when a particular section does not limit the scope of its application to certain species or categories of animals, limitations were not desired and should not be construed where they do not exist, Hessler said.

Sean Thomas, director of international investigations for Animal Equality, said the group will try to persuade the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office to act against Simmons. And legislators, he said, will be asked to adopt more specific protections.

But the most likely remedy, he said, is to have Congress insert cruelty protections for commercial catfish processing into the 2024 Farm Bill.

The current Farm Bill, enacted in 2014, transferred inspection authority from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. But the law has “an exemption that the USDA will not inspect for the humanness of the slaughter,” Thomas said.

Animal Equality wants the exemption removed and replaced by specific language against depriving the fish of life-sustaining conditions ahead of slaughter, according to Thomas.

“Just because fish have a different appearance to us that shouldn’t cloud how we see their ability to suffer,” he said in an interview.

“To the USDA we are saying you need to take a second look at this,” Thomas added, and noted his organization is collecting signatures to give Congress in support of the changes.

In the meantime, the animal rights organization says it will pressure wholesale buyers of Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish to insist on more humane practices.

Buyers include national restaurant chains Cracker Barrel and Captain D’s, as well as grocery stores Kroger, Save A Lot, and Piggly Wiggly, the group says.

Kroger, according to Thomas, has agreed to investigate the cruelty claims. Animal Equality says it hopes that once Kroger confirms the claims, the national supermarket chain will insist that all its catfish suppliers follow humane slaughter practices.

The group is in initial stages of seeking similar investigations by Cracker Barrel, Captain D’s and Save A Lot, Thomas said.

Animal Equality is also asking attorneys general in states where Simmons’ catfish are sold to examine the group’s cruelty claims. It has already achieved a victory of sorts by forcing Simmons Catfish to remove a claim from its website that its fish are fully processed within 30 minutes. “It whittles away at Simmons’ ability to make unsubstantiated claims,” Thomas said.

A study published in January 2021 by the journal “Aquaculture” and cited by Animal Equality gave an idea of what the group says a more humane process could look like. 

Rapid action is key. It would start with an electrical or percussive stun to immediately induce insensibility, the study says.

It advises the blood of the stunned fish should be immediately drained with that followed by immersion in an ice slurry to maintain insensibility until death.

Percussive stunning is the best way, the study says. A severe blow to the skull of the animal induces immediate insensibility, according to the Humane Slaughter Association.

The catfish’s insensibility is irreversible, he study notes.

The study, conducted on African sharptooth catfish, emphasizes that a fish may look unconscious but actually is only immobilized. “It has become increasingly clear that behavioral measures alone are not sufficient to assess insensibility, as some commercially used methods may induce sedation and/or paralysis without analgesia or anaesthesia prior to insensibility,” it added.

This is why validation of stunning methods should be based on neurophysiological indicators, the study in Aquaculture says. The findings stressed the importance of distinguishing between actual insensibility and paralysis and immobilization.

The U.S. farm-raised catfish industry has accepted change in its processing practices over the decades and is expected to continue to, said Mississippi State University associate professor Dr. Peter Allen, a specialist in fish physiological ecology as applied to aquaculture. 

“Like any animal production industry, slaughter procedures for wild and farmed fish are constantly being refined as we learn more about the animals and available technology improves,” Allen said in an email.

Maintaining animal welfare is a bottom-line proposition, according to Allen. Without it, a company risks a product of inconsistent quality and a loss of profits, he said.

The domestic catfish industry is hardly 50 years.  In a quest for quality, Allen said, it has taken to heart the contribution animal welfare makes to success and profits.

“As the understanding of fish biology increases,” he said, “processing techniques continue to be modified.”

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