Farm Bill Add-On a Bureaucratic Nightmare

By

Steven Hedlund

Published on
March 13, 2008

The U.S. Senate has attached a measure to its farm bill that would add catfish to the list of species included in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to inspect and grade catfish - domestic and imported. The House failed to fasten a similar measure to its farm bill, but staffers have drafted a broader measure agriculture committee members are now mulling over that would add all seafood, including catfish, to the act. Either way, the provision, if passed, would be a bureaucratic nightmare for the seafood industry.

Senators from catfish-producing states like Mississippi, the Catfish Farmers of America and its Vienna, Va., lobbying firm, Federal Solutions, pushed for the measure, reports the Washington Post.

The motivation behind the measure is twofold: Some domestic catfish interests are genuinely focused on adopting a USDA grading program similar to beef and poultry. But others recognize that expanding the USDA's authority would curb catfish imports and thus act as a trade barrier.

If the measure is part of the new farm law (the current farm law is set to expire April 18), three agencies - the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and USDA - would be authorized to inspect catfish imports and potentially all seafood imports.

"Without question this type of major policy shift would create additional barriers, impede free trade and serve to push [seafood] prices higher to the consumer," says Matt Fass, president of Maritime Products International in Newport News, Va., which imports channel catfish from China, one of five farmed-seafood products subject to an import alert the FDA issued last June due to the elevated presence of illegal antibiotics.

"The suggestion that we have immediate and significant safety issues [with seafood imports] but will have all of the answers if only we move to another agency - one with zero experience with global seafood - makes absolutely no sense," adds Fass.

As they consider the measure, lawmakers need to put the debate in perspective and ask themselves: What's the real motivation behind the measure? Is the USDA capable of inspecting seafood imports at a time when the agency is engulfed in the largest beef recall in U.S. history? And are the trace amounts of banned antibiotics (measured in parts per billion) occasionally found in seafood imports an immediate and significant public health threat, so much so that it must be included in the already bloated farm bill?

Adding yet another layer of bureaucracy to the seafood-inspection process won't improve seafood safety. But it will curb seafood imports, which represent more than 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply, at a time when seafood is getting more expensive and thus less affordable for low- and middle-income Americans. Isn't that who politicians are supposed to be looking out for?

Best regards, Steven Hedlund Associate Editor SeaFood Business

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