GAO: Repeal USDA catfish inspection program

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday urged Congress to repeal a law transferring regulation of catfish from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This is the third time that the GAO has questioned the necessity and effectiveness of the USDA catfish inspection program. But this is the first time that the independent investigative arm of Congress has gone as far as recommending that the program be eliminated.

The GAO’s recommendation comes just one day after U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts filed an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that would kill the law. The measure was included in the previous Farm Bill, enacted in 2008. However, implementation of the measure has been delayed, even though the rule-making process and the public-comment period have come and gone.

In its latest report, the GAO said the USDA catfish inspection program would “further divide responsibility for overseeing seafood safety and introduce overlap at considerable cost,” estimated at about USD 30 million. (Currently, the FDA spends less than USD 700,000 a year to inspect catfish processing facilities, according to the GAO.) In March 2011, the GAO cited the program as an example of further fragmentation of the food-safety system.

“We recognize that FSIS [the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] developed this program because it was mandated to do so by the Farm Bill, before FDA received enhanced regulatory authority under FSMA. Even so, FSIS proposed a program that essentially mirrors the catfish oversight efforts already underway by FDA and NMFS [the National Marine Fisheries Service],” said the GAO in its report.

“Furthermore, since FDA introduced HACCP requirements for seafood processing facilities, including catfish facilities, in 1997, no reported outbreaks of illnesses caused by Salmonella contamination of catfish have been reported, the hazard identified by FSIS, indicating the low risk presented by this pathogen in catfish,” continued the GAO. “Consequently, if implemented, the catfish inspection program would likely not enhance the safety of catfish but would duplicate FDA and NMFS inspections at a cost to taxpayers. With FDA’s new authority under FSMA [Food Safety Modernization Act], the federal government has an opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of the food safety system of all imported seafood, including catfish, and avoid the duplication of effort and costs that would result from FSIS’s implementation of its proposed catfish inspection program.”

It appears that support for repealing the USDA catfish inspection program is growing. In late April, 17 U.S. senators, including McCain and Kerry, signed a letter to Debbie Stabenow, chair of the senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, urging her to repeal the USDA catfish inspection program. They agrued that the program would “simply supplant the existing FDA [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] seafood regulatory scheme.” They also cited two GAO reports calling the program redundant and duplicative.


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