Last week I told my colleagues that I did not want to hear anything more about the damn “Farm Bill.” It’s taken up more time than the Korean War did, and I was sick of hearing about it. Then they caught my attention by telling me about the catfish amendment. Yes, after assigning catfish inspection to USDA in the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress in this new Farm Bill appears set to return that responsibility to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
It’s these little twists and turns that make me love the “Farm Bill.” Since USDA supposedly got the job in 2008, it has not inspected a single farm-raised U.S. catfish. (To her credit, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety, has promised Congress she’d have a final rule out by the end of this fiscal year, which would bring about the catfish inspections if they stayed at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and not transferred to FDA.)
But it has been one of those long, drawn out Washington D.C. stories. While the food safety community has mostly stood behind the domestic catfish industry on this one, we’ve had to feel just a little whacky as no one at USDA or elsewhere in the executive branch of government much liked where this was going. They always seemed to imply that Boeing might lose a multi-billion airplane order just because we want to make the world safe for catfish Po’ Boys.
While never happening, USDA catfish inspection did become a poster-child of government waste with the likes of John McCain charging that it was costing taxpayers $20 million. I never understood where that one came from as USDA only had a handful of staff work on the issue for about year.
But now if these Farm Bill committee votes are any indication, the job of not inspecting catfish will go back to FDA, where it will continue not inspecting more than 99 percent of imported catfish each year as it does with all the other foreign seafood coming ashore in the USA.
The fact that FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported seafood, added to a high percentage of food fraud that appears to be happening at the docks, does not make one feel warm and fuzzy about the safety of fish in general. Recent studies say 33 percent of imported fish is mislabeled as one species when it really is another.
But this is topic the Farm Bill crowd does not seem to want to get into. The public is asleep on the issue. Nobody has given fish species mislabeling a catchy name like “pink slime” and so far no “horse fish” has been found. So even though there is a bill in the hopper to do something about it, the Farm Bill crowd can ignore the problem.
After all, they are there to divvy up the money we borrow, not get into messy details about the near total lack of seafood safety. (By the way, do the Chinese still show up for our T-Bill auctions?)
So, catfish non-inspection is going to return to FDA. Its inspection of foreign seafood is like a man trying to drink from a fire hose, it cannot keep up with the rapid increase in foreign fish coming across U.S. docks.
In 2012, there were 70 Import Refusal Actions against imported tilapia, the white fish species brought in to undercut U.S. farm-raised catfish. Among the reasons: Salmonella (33); illegal drug residues (13); filthy (12) Salmonella and drugs (8), and unsanitary (4).
The illegal drug residue included findings of cancer-causing nitrofurans in Vietnamese pangasius. Imported Chinese-sourced channel catfish led last year’s refusals.
“How can Americans protect themselves from tainted imported seafood when restaurants do not identify the county of origin of seafood they serve?” Catfish Farmers of America asked in commenting on the 2010 import refusals.
The Jackson, MS-based group represents catfish farms mostly located in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. It says USDA inspection of catfish is a food safety issue. Such leading consumer and food safety groups as The Consumer Federation of America, Food and Water Watch, and STOP Foodborne Illness have backed it in that position.
In Washington, D.C., however, money is the only consideration. And, in that world the Catfish Farmers of America are depicted as merely looking for protectionism in a world of free trade. How can we hold whatever comes in from Vietnam or China to the same inspection standards as we have for U.S farm-raised catfish?
U.S. farm-raised catfish does have a few advantages. They are raised in fresh water ponds and fed high protein pellets that float on top of the water. They’ve been found to be an excellent source of protein, not fed any antibiotics or hormones or iodine.
USDA was never wild about taking on catfish, mainly because it would divert resources from meat and poultry inspection. The U.S. Government Accountability Office jumped on the issue, raising concerns about duplication with catfish going to USDA but the other fish being left back at FDA.
It’s hardly the only area of duplication between the two major food safety agencies. USDA grades eggs, but whether they are contaminated is up to FDA. Cheese and meat pizzas get into different regulatory lines.
Dr. Richard Raymond, the former USDA under secretary for food safety, says the duplication problem could be solved if Congress would just allow FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to do something trading of responsibilities.
But that would make too much sense. Sending catfish back to FDA so more than 99 percent will not be inspected there is just the sort of solution Congress comes up with. This could bounce back and forth for years.
Maybe, to protect its brand what U.S. catfish farmers should do is for for labeling in the home states. The genetically engineered food crowd has already warmed up state lawmakers to the concept of state labeling. Alaska has already done it for salmon.
If there was a little American flag planted in my catfish Po’ Boy, then I’d know it was U.S. farm raised, under a HACCP plan, inspected, and tested. I’d like that a lot.