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Obama’s Budget Seeks to Slash Horsemeat and Catfish Inspection

Buried in President Obama’s nearly 1,500-page budget released this week are two very specific food safety-related requests. The administration wants to keep the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from inspecting horsemeat or catfish.

The horse slaughter issue, which is extremely contentious, is mentioned a few hundred pages into the appendices. The document specifies that no funds are to be used to pay the salaries or expenses of government personnel to inspect horses being slaughtered for human consumption. Since plants aren’t able to legally operate without FSIS inspection, the resource freeze would be a defacto ban on the practice.

Of course, the move was welcomed by animal and horse advocates who have been fighting the renewed interest in U.S. horse slaughter for years. Lately, the arguments against horse slaughter include serious food safety issues, as horses are often given drugs that are harmful to humans. The ongoing scandal in Europe over horsemeat ending up in processed beef products has raised even more questions about the practice.

“This administration is wise to reject that path and to embrace the idea, even indirectly, that horses belong in the stable and not on the table,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, in the New York Times on Thursday.

But A. Blair Dunn, a lawyer representing the owners of a New Mexico facility that was hoping to start processing horses this summer, noted that the budget item was not likely to become law. “I know of a few members of Congress who are not likely to let it remain in the budget,” Dunn told the Times. “All this means is more debate and more hardship for my clients because they’ve made these investments to modify their plant already.”

Catfish inspection is an entirely different issue. The 2008 Farm Bill mandated a catfish program within FSIS, even though the agency is responsible for meat, poultry and processed egg products – not seafood (that’s the responsibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration). But U.S. catfish farmers and supportive members of Congress eyed USDA inspection as a way to curb the flood of cheap catfish and catfish-like imports, so the program went into law.

The Government Accountability Office has since called the catfish inspection scheme duplicative and wasteful. A 2012 GAO report questioned whether the USDA inspection program would improve food safety, pointing out that federal regulators are using “outdated and limited” information in their risk assessment for the program.

The GAO notes that, in the risk assessment, FSIS identified just one outbreak of Salmonella, but the incident “was not clearly linked to catfish.”

“Other federal agencies questioned if FSIS had adequately demonstrated a Salmonella problem in catfish,” according to that report. For example, FDA does not generally have such concerns. Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) also stated that FSIS did not adequately demonstrate that Salmonella was a problem with catfish.

According to the GAO, NMFS and other federal agencies have argued that it is more likely that chemical and drug residues in farm raised catfish are potential hazards, but the White House Office of Management and Budget told FSIS that Salmonella was the most practical hazard to evaluate, because of the strong data on Salmonella-linked deaths and illnesses in the United States.

An FSIS spokesman confirmed with Food Safety News that over the past couple years FSIS has devoted staff members to develop rule-making for catfish inspection, but that there is still no program up and running. There was a proposed rule published in 2011, but no catfish have been inspected yet.

The Office of Catfish Inspection has since been folded into other program areas, according to the spokesman, with a core staff of four people working on “further policy development in anticipation of potential implementation of the catfish inspection program.”

According to CNN, the Obama budget targets the program in its list of $25 billion in cuts for FY 2014, but the specifics are not mentioned in the White House budget outlines for USDA.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), who has introduced a bill to eliminate the program, said she was was satisfied to see the Obama administration’s budget “react positively to our call to remove this duplicative program.”

“I have said all along that we do not need two government agencies inspecting seafood,” she said, in a statement this week.”With the money our government could save by eliminating catfish inspection duplication and other wastes of taxpayer dollars, we could address budget cuts that are negatively impacting our national defense.”

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