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Number of Catfish Inspectors Drives a Debate on Spending
August 13, 2013, 04:54 PM
Deep-fried catfish served with a side of hush puppies and coleslaw has been a regional specialty for years and a cash crop for states in the Deep South. Now, catfish is at the heart of a dispute as the House and Senate prepare to work out their differences on a new five-year farm bill. The current bill expires on Sept. 30.

At issue is a little-known provision in the 2008 bill that established an office within the Agriculture Department to inspect catfish. But those inspection programs also exist at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Commerce Department.

The Agriculture Department has traditionally inspected meat and poultry while the F.D.A. has inspected all other foods, including seafood.

Since 2009 the Agriculture Department said that it has spent $20 million to set up the catfish inspection office, which has a staff of four. The department said that it expects to spend about $14 million a year to run it. The F.D.A. spends about $700,000 a year on its existing office.

Despite the cost, the Agriculture Department has yet to inspect a single catfish.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said the program reeks of wasteful government spending intended to help one special interest group, and he has vowed to “deep-fry” the catfish program.

On Monday, Mr. McCain and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, sent a letter to Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, asking her to adopt language from the House farm bill that eliminates the additional inspection office. An amendment sponsored by the two senators to cut the program’s funding was not included in the Senate’s most recent version of the farm bill.

“There is no reason for taxpayers to be subsidizing a duplicative catfish inspection program that will cost millions to set up and another $15 million to operate annually,” Ms. Shaheen said. “Eliminating this duplicative program is a matter of common sense.”

Catfish farmers and producers in Mississippi say their support of a catfish inspection program at the Agriculture Department is about food safety and imported catfish.

“The F.D.A. is understaffed and little inspection is done of the fish that comes into this country,” said Dick Stevens, the president and chief executive of the Consolidated Catfish Company in Isola, Miss. “Fish raised in other countries have been found to have drugs in them. We’re just saying everyone should be held to the same standard.”

But that argument has little sympathy outside of the catfish industry.

A May 2012 Government Accountability Office report called imported catfish a low-risk food and said an inspection program at the Agriculture Department would “not enhance the safety of catfish but would duplicate F.D.A.” and Commerce Department inspections at a cost to taxpayers. The G.A.O. said a food safety law passed in 2010 would give the F.D.A. the resources it needed to adequately inspect foreign foods, including catfish. The Obama administration has called for eliminating the Agriculture Department’s catfish inspection program.

Most agriculture groups are also opposed to the Agriculture Department’s catfish inspection program. Groups including the American Soybean Association and the U.S. Grains Council signed on to a letter supporting repeal of the program.

Domestic catfish farmers have been hammered in recent years by a combination of rising feed costs and competition from foreign producers, particularly Vietnam and China.

Catfish farmers and producers say the industry has shrunk by about 60 percent since its peak a decade or so ago. In the past few years, 20 percent of the catfish farming operations have closed, which producers attribute to the influx of foreign fish.

The industry has tried to fight back. In 2002, farmers and producers lobbied successfully for a law to prohibit fish from Vietnam from being sold and marketed as catfish, unless it was from a species that was found only in the southern United States.

But that did not stop the flow of fish imports. So, with backing from Southern lawmakers, the industry fought for the 2008 provision in the farm bill that would subject catfish to a more rigorous inspection regimen than the one at the F.D.A.

Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group of seafood producers, including catfish farmers, called the inspection program a backdoor trade restriction.

“What you have is a special interest group trying to use a food safety scare as a trade barrier,” Mr. Gibbons said. “It’s wholly inappropriate.”

But that has not been enough to sway Southern lawmakers like Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi.

A staunch defender of the domestic catfish industry, Mr. Cochran was instrumental in getting the inspection provision in the 2008 farm bill. Mississippi leads the nation in catfish production, and a research facility at Mississippi State University dedicated to the study of catfish is the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center.

Source: (New York Times)
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