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House Ag Committee Votes to Repeal USDA Catfish Inspection

The House Agriculture Committee voted to repeal a controversial catfish inspection program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture late Wednesday night – a sign the program, which was mandated by the 2008 farm bill to help protect U.S. catfish farmers from cheap imports, may be headed for the chopping block.

In the last attempt at the farm bill last summer, the Senate moved to repeal the USDA program, but the House version had sought to renew the program, against the recommendation of the Government Accountability Office, which has deemed the inspection scheme wasteful and duplicative. The White House has also come out in favor of cutting the program.

During the late night farm bill markup, the House Agriculture Committee voted 31-15 for an amendment introduced by Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-MO) to strip catfish inspection from USDA, which would move the fish back under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that oversees the safety of all other seafood products.

It’s not clear whether the program will ultimately be repealed in the final farm bill. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have introduced a similar measure in the Senate, but it would need to be introduced as an amendment when the bill is considered by the full Senate, which will likely be next week.

On Thursday the National Fisheries Institute, a broad-based seafood industry group, praised the House agriculture panel for voting to nix the catfish inspection program at USDA.

“The committee chose sound fiscal policy and a commitment to grow rural economies by protecting trading opportunities in export markets for American farm products,” said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for NFI. “We look forward to a Farm Bill, signed into law by the President, that reflects the Committee’s action on repealing this program.”

On Thursday, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, told a Senate subcommittee for agriculture appropriations that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is planning to release a final rule on catfish inspection, which has been delayed for years, by Oct 1.

“The catfish industry is very important in deep South states,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), when inquiring about the status of the program in the hearing on Thursday.

“I know how important this is for you and the producers in your state,” said Dr. Hagen. “I think this has turned out to be more complicated than we thought it would be. I am committed to getting a final rule out by the end of the fiscal year…our staff knows this is a priority.”

Sen. Cochran thanked Dr. Hagen and said, “We appreciate your good efforts.”

Cochran, who represents the number one catfish producing state, has long urged the USDA to move forward on developing an inspection program (the USDA has yet to inspect any catfish since the 2008 farm bill granted it jurisdiction over the fish). The idea was to hold the flood of imported fish from southeast Asia to the same health and quality standards as U.S.-grown catfish.

But the GAO has sharply 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, upon which the inspection program would be based. In their risk assessment, FSIS identified just one outbreak of Salmonella (in 1991), but the incident “was not clearly linked to catfish.” According to GAO, no catfish-linked Salmonella outbreaks have happened since.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (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, according to GAO, 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.

A spokesman for FSIS told Food Safety News last month that the agency currently has a “core staff” of four people working on “further policy development in anticipation of potential implementation of the catfish inspection program,” but since developing a proposed rule in 2011 the Office of Catfish Inspection has been folded into other program areas.

According to GAO, between 2009 and 2011, FSIS spent $15.4 million on developing the program and was expected to spend an additional $4.4 million last fiscal year.

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