On the floor Thursday, Sen. McCain mocked a variety of farm bill programs, including a $15 million grant program to improve the sheep industry, a $200 million overseas ag marketing program, and a $25 million initiative to study the health benefits of peas, lentils, and garbanzo beans.
“Mothers all over America that have advocated for their children to eat their peas will be pleased to know there’s a study…” joked the senior senator.
McCain also mocked a mohair subsidy, “which has been fleecing the American people since 1954.” (The subsidy was repealed in the 1990s, but was reinstated in the 2002 farm bill).
“The mohair program, which costs taxpayers about $1 million a year, may not be particularly expensive compared to most farm programs,” said McCain. “I suppose where some of my colleagues see a minor government pittance for wool socks, I see a disgraceful example of how special interests can embed themselves in a Farm Bill for generations.”
One item that seems to have McCain particularly fired up is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pending catfish inspection program, something that was added to the 2008 Farm Bill — under the guise of food safety — to help protect southern catfish farmers from the influx of import competition.
With support from both sides of the aisle — including Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) — McCain has filed an amendment (#2199) to the 2012 farm bill to repeal the new catfish inspection program.
“As my colleagues know, USDA inspects meat, eggs, and poultry, but not seafood,” said McCain in remarks released by his office. “Thus, a whole new government office is being developed at USDA just to inspect catfish. Catfish farmers have tried to argue that we need a Catfish Inspection Office to ensure Americans are eating safe and healthy catfish. I wholeheartedly agree that catfish should be safe for consumers.”
“The problem is FDA already inspects catfish – just like it does ALL seafood – screening it for biological and chemical hazards,” added McCain. “If there were legitimate food safety reasons for having USDA inspect catfish, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
As Food Safety News noted this week, the catfish program has not yet launched at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, in part due to the agency not having decided on the proper definition of “catfish.”
A new report by the Government Accountability Office seriously questioned the inspection program, calling it duplicative and an inefficient use of government resources.
The report also questioned whether the program would improve food safety. The FSIS risk assessment looked at Salmonella — though there is little to no evidence of a significant public health risk — and not veterinary drugs or other chemical residues, which experts suspect are more likely to pose a public health risk.
FSIS estimates that it would cost taxpayers and the industry $14 million each year to operate the inspection program and around 98 percent of that cost would be borne by taxpayers, according to GAO. And money has already been spent. Between 2009 and 2011, the agency spent $15.4 million just developing the program and is slated to spend $4.4 million more in FY 2012.
Additionally, according to McCain’s office, creating the inspection office would cost taxpayers $30 million up front.
The senator also noted that if the program is not repealed, Vietnam, the largest exporter of catfish, could file a World Trade Organization complaint against the United States for creating an unjustified trade restriction.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Thursday that the Senate will resume consideration of the farm bill on Monday evening, but negotiations over which amendments will be brought to the floor are ongoing.
According to Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the agriculture committee, nearly 300 farm bill amendments have been filed, “which illustrates how important this is to our colleagues from every part of the country.”
“We are continuing to make progress toward a final amendment package and I’m confident we’ll do what the American people want to see us do – come together and pass a bill that will cut spending and create jobs,” said Stabenow in a statement.
Photo credit: The Catfish Institute at www.uscatish.com.© Food Safety News