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A Senate Catfight Over Catfish

These funny mustachioed fish are at the center of a farm bill fight in the House and Senate.
Sasha Radosavljevic
These funny mustachioed fish are at the center of a farm bill fight in the House and Senate.

The farm bill is expected to pass in the Senate on Monday night. And to the dismay of some, it likely won't include an amendment that would have eliminated a controversial program to keep a closer eye on a food product you probably weren't even worried about: catfish.

In an op-ed published Friday in Politico, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made the case for why $15 million a year to fund an "absurd" U.S. Department of Agriculture catfish office is a waste of taxpayer money. He and Jean Shaheen, D-N.H., sponsored the amendment in the Senate to kill the program. According to McCain and Shaheen, additional inspectors for domestic and imported catfish are nothing more than a gift to Southern catfish farmers seeking to burden their Asian competitors with extra compliance costs.

Here's the backstory: U.S. catfish farmers have been struggling for a while. Total acreage of catfish ponds has dropped from a high of 196,760 acres in 2002 to 83,020 acres in January 2013. As Kristofer Husted reported for us in January, lack of water, high temperatures and feed prices are part of the problem.

But more threatening, as far as the people still in business are concerned, are the foreign companies who now dominate 78 percent of the U.S. market for frozen catfish and similar species. How did these companies, mostly from Vietnam and China, manage that? They've found ways to raise catfish more cheaply and efficiently.

Meanwhile, congressmen from Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, the top three catfish-producing states, have been looking for ways to bolster the domestic industry by limiting imports. And eventually, critics say, they figured more inspectors might do the trick.

Seafood inspection is the job of the Food and Drug Administration, and that's one reason both McCain and the Government Accountability Office are against having another agency duplicate the FDA's efforts.

"Unless catfish have suddenly sprouted legs, USDA should stick to meat, poultry and egg inspections," McCain wrote.

Nearly $20 million has already been spent on the USDA's Office of Catfish Inspection since its creation in 2008. Its supporters say the FDA is woefully underfunded and ill-equipped to monitor imported seafood — especially when it comes to testing for residues of drugs used by foreign producers — and needs USDA's help.

Those supporters include, unsurprisingly, the Catfish Farmers of America, a trade group that has argued that foreign catfish are riskier for consumers than what we grow here. A report the group commissioned in 2010 found that salmonella, the pathogen most often associated with catfish, was found more frequently on imported catfish than on domestic catfish.

The FDA isn't exempt from criticism in this fight, either — the agency is regularly lambasted for not being able to keep up with testing of all imported seafood, not just catfish. The U.S. imports 90 percent of its seafood, but according to the Government Accountability Office, in 2009, the FDA performed drug residue testing on only 0.1 percent of the seafood entering the country. (In these tests, the FDA is looking for residue showing both use of unapproved drugs and misuse of approved drugs.)

Consumers Union is also in favor of USDA getting involved with catfish inspection. In comments prepared for Congress back in 2011, CU senior scientist Michael Hansen wrote, "We believe that [USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service] is better suited than the FDA to ensure the safety of domestic and imported catfish, as FSIS does a more comprehensive review of food safety systems." In particular, Hansen wrote, his group was worried about foreign catfish producers' use of drugs unapproved for use in aquaculture in the U.S., which could affect consumers' health or contribute to antibiotic resistance.

And yet the GAO has agreed with Shaheen and McCain that the USDA catfish program won't add much to what the FDA is already doing. The GAO recommends that Congress instead help FDA do a better job inspecting seafood.

But The Hill reports that the amendment to kill the catfish office may not get a vote at all. Why? Agriculture Committee leaders are unlikely to allow it or other "non-controversial" amendments to be brought up before a vote on final passage of the farm bill. Over in the House, the Agriculture Committee has voted to repeal the inspection program, according to Food Safety News.

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Eliza Barclay
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