catfish net

U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts on Thursday filed an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that would kill a law transferring regulation of catfish from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Farm Bill sets the United States’ nutrition and agriculture policy for the next five years, and, on Thursday, the Senate voted to advance its version of the bill, initiating about two weeks of debate on the Senate floor.

The previous Farm Bill, enacted in 2008, included a provision that gave the USDA the authority to inspect imported and domestic catfish. However, implementation of the measure has been delayed, even though the rule-making process and the public-comment period have come and gone.

The 2012 Farm Bill would override the 2008 Farm Bill, so if the McCain-Kerry amendment survives, the FDA, the agency responsible for monitoring the U.S. food supply, would retain the authority to inspect catfish.

It appears that support for doing so is only building. In late April, 17 U.S. senators, including McCain and Kerry, signed a letter to Debbie Stabenow, chair of the senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, urging her to repeal the USDA catfish inspection program. They agrued that the program would “simply supplant the existing FDA [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] seafood regulatory scheme.” They also cited two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports calling the program redundant and duplicative; the program is expected to cost USD 30 million to implement, according to the GAO. 

“Cost cutters on the Hill who have been looking to root out waste and protect American jobs have thrown down the gauntlet with this,” said National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gavin Gibbons. “McCain and Kerry are leading a bipartisan effort that says if you support programs that waste tens of millions in taxpayer dollars, if you support programs that will negatively impact U.S. agricultural exports, if you support regulatory programs that have no food-safety benefit, then you support the [USDA] catfish inspection program. If you’re sick of wasteful handouts, you support repeal. It’s a fairly cut and dry scenario.” 

The McCain-Kerry amendment comes as a relief to U.S. catfish and pangasius importers, who say the USDA catfish inspection program would curb the flow of product into the U.S. market (it’s still unclear whether the catfish-like pangasius would be included in the program). They also contend that its supporters are simply trying to protect the domestic catfish farming and processing industry, not safeguard public health.

At the same time, U.S. catfish farmers and processors argue that their competitors overseas should be subject to the same scrutiny as they are when it comes to food safety. The USDA catfish inspection program has the backing of The Catfish Institute and several Southern legislators.

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