Sen. McCain strikes back

In late 2001, when he took the floor in opposition of the “pork-barrel interests” hijacking the agricultural appropriations bill, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took catfish to task. Specially, he blasted a provision slipped into the bill mandating that only fish in the Ictaluridae family be classified as “catfish.” The provision, he said at the time, is intended only to protect domestic-catfish interests, which will “handsomely profit by killing competition from Vietnam.”

McCain, fortunately, was only partly right. Prohibiting pangasius from being labeled as “catfish” did little, if anything, to curb the flow of imports into the U.S. market. In fact, catfish and pangasius imports experienced a 17-fold increase between 2000 and 2010.

Nearly a decade later, McCain is at it again. This time he’s standing up against a provision transferring regulation of domestic and imported catfish, and potentially pangasius, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (The provision was included in the agricultural appropriations bill passed in 2008.)

The intention is the same — to protect domestic-catfish interests, though they claim the USDA will provide far greater health and safety oversight of catfish production. But this time around, the outcome will likely be disastrous. The USDA has no experience regulating fish, and shifting catfish-inspecting responsibilities from the USDA to the FDA will be awkward and arduous, at best. What’s worse, nowhere in the provision or the rule governing the provision does it clarify that the FDA will be relieved of its catfish-inspection duties, meaning two agencies will be responsible for regulating catfish. Talk about bureaucracy.

On Monday, McCain, along with U.S. Sen. John Coburn (R-Okla.), introduced legislation to rescind the provision, which McCain called “nothing more than a protectionist tactic funded at taxpayers’ expense.” And they should be commended for doing so. It’s much easier to protect your constituents than to stand up for the principles of free trade.

And McCain and Coburn just may get the support they require to push the bill through Congress. Last year, U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), along with U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), penned a letter to the Office of Management and Budget opposing the provision on the grounds that it’s unnecessary and will harm processors in Massachusetts and other states that rely on both domestic and imported seafood. And the 2010 election brought in a wave of free-trade proponents like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who would eagerly co-sponsor such a bill.

So, after more than two years of anticipation and last month’s USDA rule that did little to elucidate the situation, it appears as though the catfish-inspection provision may not be implemented after all. And that’s good news for U.S.-based processors who depend on imported seafood and for American consumers who covet inexpensive, mild whitefish species like catfish and pangasius.


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