Farm Bill passes US House, catfish and all

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an updated version of the Farm Bill this week, but without a proposed amendment repealing a controversial catfish inspection program, angering critics who say the program is an unofficial trade barrier costing American taxpayers millions of dollars.

The bill, which represents a compromise between the agricultural committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives, passed the House on 29 January with a vote of 251-166, and now requires a vote in the Senate. The amendment to remove the catfish program did not make it out of committee discussions before the bill went to the House floor, and Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, blamed Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a ranking member of the Senate Agricultural Committee.

"Senator Cochran counted the votes and realized if repeal came up for a vote he would lose and lose badly," Gibbons told SeafoodSource via email. "So, he stripped the amendment out of the bill entirely. You can't lose a vote you don't hold."

Cochran's office has not responded to several attempts by SeafoodSource to seek comment. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee chair, also did not respond to requests for comment. Ranking congressmen in the House Agricultural Committee also did not respond to requests for comment from SeafoodSource.

After the vote, Cochran released a statement on his website praising the "large, bipartisan and regionally-diverse" vote, but did not mention the catfish program. Sen. Stabenow's site offered a similar statement, with bullet points highlighting what the new bill does, including "cuts unnecessary spending." Stabenow's statement also did not mention the catfish program.

The Farm Bill represents legislation that helps regulate America's food supply. Among the regulations is a 2008 mandate that catfish imports to the United States must be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The rule clashes with a previous understanding that such inspections are the domain of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Supporters of the change argue that the USDA is better able to track potential contamination of the nation's food supply. Critics, however, note that the USDA is not equipped to handle seafood inspections, and has spent millions of dollars already just getting up to speed, all without inspecting a single fish.

The program has been labeled a waste of money by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and critics, including NFI, multiple Washington spending watchdog groups and a list of senators and congressmen, have called for its removal.


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