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Group Asks USDA, FDA to Move on Catfish

In another act of the ongoing catfish regulatory drama, the advocacy group Food and Water Watch sent a letter yesterday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius recommending they work together to get catfish inspections rolling as soon as possible.

catfish-dinner-featured.jpgThe 2008 farm bill mandated that the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) begin inspecting the flood of imported catfish from Asia, but the rule has been severely delayed and has not been implemented.  The move was backed by food safety advocates and domestic catfish farmers, many of whom reside in Arkansas. Their interests are well represented by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), a seventh generation Arkansan, who is currently battling to keep her seat in a heated primary runoff.

The U.S Trade Representative’s office has reservations about the rule, and it has yet to be cleared by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

“We have heard a variety of reasons for the delay in the publication of the proposed rule, but the fact remains that U.S. consumers are not being afforded any more protection since inspections for both domestic and imported catfish have not increased as the proposed rule languishes at (Office of Management and Budget),” the letter from Food and Water Watch reads.

“President Obama established the White House Food Safety Working Group that you co-chair so that the federal government’s food safety agencies could better coordinate food safety policy,” notes the letter. “While the Administration continues to work to resolve its internal disputes on the proposed catfish inspection rule, we believe that there is an opportunity for FDA and [USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] to collaborate to improve food safety by using already-appropriated funds to increase microbial testing of catfish.  The testing should be jointly done by the two agencies and it should cover all 39 species of catfish that could enter into U.S. commerce.  The testing protocol should be designed to detect food borne pathogens and residues from veterinary drugs, pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics, and heavy metals that could pose a public health risk.   The results of testing that show violations of U.S. food safety standards should be posted on both agency websites on a monthly basis.”

Food and Water Watch lobbyist Tony Corbo, told Food Safety News that he thinks there has been enough delay on the issue.

“First, the controversy internally has lasted long enough,” said Corbo in an email to Food Safety News. “It is impeding food safety and could be playing a role in delaying in having an Under Secretary for Food Safety confirmed.  We purposely cc’d Peter Orszag so that OMB can start thinking about how this can be done right off the bat if the Departments are willing to do this.”

How the agencies will respond remains unclear. It is rumored that catfish politics could be holding out the most important food safety nominee, the Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, currently the chief medical officer at the agency, waited four months for a committee hearing after being selected by the Administration and there is currently no timeline for voting her nomination out of committee.

Hagen is considered a non-controversial nominee.

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