U.S. pols take another swipe at catfish program


Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
May 19, 2015

American lawmakers are taking another shot at eliminating a controversial catfish inspection program lambasted as a waste of American taxpayers’ money, this time trying to work a repeal of the program into a trade promotion authority bill currently before the U.S. Senate.

The bill, nicknamed the “fast track” bill, is designed to assist with future negotiations of trade agreements. It’s of particular interest now because the Obama administration is currently working on a major new trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, between the United States and several Asian countries.

That’s exactly why Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., are pushing to add an amendment to the bill that repeals a catfish inspection program that first went on the books as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, and later confirmed with the 2014 Farm Bill. The program takes responsibility from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for inspecting catfish, and transfers it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“The real aim was to raise costs for Vietnamese exports and drive them from the U.S. market,” McCain (pictured) said on the senate floor on Tuesday.

Proponents of the program, including Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., have argued the change is necessary to beef up inspection of a product to prevent contaminants from causing public health problems in the United States. Opponents, including McCain and Shaheen, have said there is no health threat, and that the program instead will serve as an unofficial trade barrier to block imported catfish and protect domestic catfish producers in states such as Mississippi.

McCain said Asian countries, whom the Obama administration is now courting in the new trade agreement, see the program as a trade barrier, too. McCain said the World Trade Organization (WTO) has indicated this program, when it finally officially takes effect, would be seen by the WTO as a trade barrier. McCain said the Vietnamese government also has indicated it may retaliate against the United States with similar trade barriers to American export products such as beef. At the very least, he said, Vietnam will likely appeal to the WTO for relief, “where it would probably win.”

McCain also noted the program has not yet officially begun, but setup costs have already passed the USD 20 million (EUR 17.9 million) mark, drawing the ire of multiple public officials and taxpayer watchdog groups. Even the Government Accountability Office, McCain said, has called the program wasteful on nine separate occasions. Amending the current trade bill to remove the program, McCain said, will end the waste.

“If we don’t allow this amendment, we are really, really showing a degree of contempt and arrogance to the taxpayers of America,” he said.

Shaheen also spoke against the program calling it “wasteful, duplicative,” and urged the senate to repeal it before it officially begins.

“This may be our last chance to solve this problem,” she said.

Cochran, who has been behind the program from the beginning, said the new trade bill amendment was resurrecting an issue that the legislature had already decided upon.

“It has been debated and resolved in two separate Farm Bills,” he said.

Cochran also cited a lack of inspections of catfish, noting the current system, relying on the FDA, allows only 2 percent of catfish imports to get inspected, and risks Americans will get exposed to hazardous contaminants.

“This is just not acceptable,” he said.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who also supports the program, cited the same statistic , saying, “That gives me pause as a consumer.”

Wicker also denied that the program was enacted as a trade barrier to protect a small number of businesses in a few states.

“What this is about is food safety for Americans in 50 states,” he said.

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