US tries again to ax catfish inspection program

By

Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
March 21, 2013

Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are once again taking aim at a catfish inspection program decried as wasteful by a number of seafood and agricultural industry groups, budget watchdogs and Washington, D.C., politicians.

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) introduced Senate Bill 632 today to repeal a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program for inspecting all imported catfish. In the House, Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) introduced a similar bill, HR 1313.

Typically, inspection of imported seafood is the dominion of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the adoption of the 2008 Farm Bill contained a provision moving authority over inspecting catfish imports to the USDA, which typically inspects non-seafood products such as beef. Although the bill passed, the provision hasn't gone into effect yet.

Supporters say the move was designed to ensure that inspections would be more thorough, thus protecting public health. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) sponsored the catfish inspection program provision. A spokesman for Cochran’s office provided a number of statements Cochran has made on the subject.

“With nearly a third of all catfish consumed in the United States imported from foreign sources, it is important to health and safety interests that we provide the necessary tools and resources to ensure that these imports meet the same quality standards as domestic products,” Cochran said at a USDA public hearing in 2011. “While we owe that assurance to American consumers, the current inspection system for catfish does not meet that responsibility.”

Cochran added that fish farming in China, Vietnam and Thailand could expose product there to harmful chemicals that are banned in the United States.

“Allowing contaminated products to enter our country’s food supply without being properly inspected would not only weaken consumer confidence, it would pose a significant public health risk,” Cochran said.

The inspection program’s critics have argued that the move was prompted not by an interest in public health, but by the domestic catfish industry, and was designed to block imports from competing countries such as Vietnam.

McCain, in a statement released on Thursday, cited a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of the program that shows it has already cost about USD 20 million (EUR 15.4 million) n administrative costs, and will cost millions more, while inspections haven’t even begun yet.

“It’s common sense that the proposed USDA Catfish Office should be eliminated given the criticisms lodged against it by the Government Accountability Office,” McCain said. “Its true purpose is to prop up the domestic catfish industry at the expense of the American consumer and our international trade partners.”

McCain and his fellow legislators seem to have no shortage of support. A website, repealcatfish.com, carries a list of dozens of food safety, budget watchdog and agricultural advocacy groups all calling for the program’s removal. The site also lists more than 50 congressmen and senators as opponents to the program.

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal called the initial implementation of the measure “a boondoggle on its face,” accusing its supporters of using a claim of a public health threat as an excuse to garner support for a measure that protects a small, regional domestic industry.

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) has also spoken out against the program, with a video featuring NFI Communications Coordinator Lynsee Fowler at the top of the repealcatfish.com site drumming up support. NFI Spokesman Gavin Gibbons said of the program, “This is a sad scenario where a fake food safety scare has been used by special interests to erect a food trade barrier.”

Despite all this criticism, the program has survived at least one previous repeal attempt. Last year, similar repeal bills passed the Senate, but got bogged down in the House, languishing in the House Agricultural Committee.

Many of the program’s supporters, including Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), are on the committee. A request for comment to Crawford’s office was not immediately returned, and a spokesman for Cochran declined to comment on the new legislation, pointing to the senator’s previous comments on the issue.

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