In a vote that divided both major U.S. political parties, the United States Senate voted Wednesday, 25 May to eliminate the requirement that all imported catfish be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The controversial measure pitted those favoring more inspections against those wanting to decrease trade barriers and eliminate duplicative inspection systems. The 55-43 vote, which split the votes of both the Republican and Democratic parties, was supported by that National Fisheries Institute and retail groups and opposed by food safety organizations.
About 60 percent of all catfish, or pangasius, consumed in the United States is imported from Vietnam. Senators representing southern states home to the majority of U.S. catfish producers were the most vocal opponents of the measure, citing concerns that high levels of antibiotics and carcinogens have been founded in imported pangasius.
“I believe American consumers should be able to buy and eat catfish knowing that it has met strict U.S. safety standards,” Sen.Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) wrote in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, published Friday, 27 May. “Our domestic producers, who work hard to harvest wholesome, quality-controlled catfish, are subject to rigorous inspections. Why should the standards for foreign producers be any different?”
However, Wicker and his colleagues supporting the measure were accused of favoring the inspections as a means of protecting the domestic catfish industry from lower-priced imports, primarily from Vietnam. Allies of President Obama and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have called for lowering trade barriers and the elimination of the USDA’s catfish inspection program, even though the president himself created it by signing it into law in 2014 as part of a larger piece of legislation governing U.S. farming.
Republicans including John McCain (R-Arizona) also opposed the measure, calling it a waste of federal funds, as catfish inspections are already carried out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The measure now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives. If it passes the House, it will still have to be approved by President Barack Obama.