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GAO Report Backpedals, Catfish Farmers Say

Domestic catfish producers Thursday accused the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of  “back-peddling” on food safety in seafood inspections.

The Catfish Farmers of America took offense at GAO’s questions about the cost of moving catfish inspection to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The industry group suggested that going back on that decision would “put consumers at greater risk.”

In its report this week on how Congress might save up to $200 billion, GAO re-stated its long-held position that 15 federal food safety agencies should be consolidated into one, even though the financial savings would not be significant. The 345-page report, the first of its kind to Congress, laid out federal programs, agencies, offices and initiatives that have duplicative goals or activities.

GAO used the pending switch of catfish inspections to FSIS, from FDA, as an example of how government jurisdiction should not be so fractured, since FDA is already responsible for all other seafood.

“Although reducing fragmentation in federal food safety oversight is not expected to result in significant cost savings, new costs may be avoided by preventing further fragmentation, as illustrated by the approximately $30 million for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 that USDA officials had said they would have to spend developing and implementing the agency’s new congressionally mandated catfish inspection program,” GAO said.

The 2008 Farm Bill included a provision, requested by domestic catfish producers, to send their inspections to FSIS.  But USDA has not made that happen, in part because of opposition to the law by the U.S. Trade Representative, which is part of the White House.

The Obama Administration is apparently more concerned about protecting two-way trade with Vietnam, a major exporter of catfish-related species, than it is about shoring up domestic catfish based mostly in the South.

Although USDA is now asking for comment on regulations to bring catfish inspection under its control, Obama has not asked Congress for the $30 million needed to do the job.

 “The GAO report’s suggestion that regulation of catfish be returned to the FDA is a giant step backwards in protecting the health and safety of American consumers,” said Butch Wilson, newly elected president of the Catfish Farmers of America.

“Congress moved catfish inspections from the FDA to USDA because the USDA system provides far greater health and safety oversight of catfish production and processing,” said Wilson. “That decision was based, in part, on a previous GAO finding that FDA inspects only two percent of all seafood imported into the United States.”

The domestic catfish producers see USDA as having greater authority to conduct on-site safety inspections of production facilities, guarantee accurate labeling and enforce requirements that imported meat, poultry and catfish meet the same health and safety standards as American products.

“Our primary goal is to ensure the safety of our product for the American consumer,” Wilson said.

On Feb. 24, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal called on the Obama administration to prevent the regulatory change, saying there have been no reported safety problems with Vietnamese imports and that USDA has no experience regulating fish.

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