The Senate approved a farm bill on Monday evening 66 to 27. The legislation, which has a $955 billion price tag over the next decade, would end direct payments to farmers and boost subsidized crop insurance, but the bill did not include major food safety amendments, including Sen. John McCain’s provision to repeal the controversial catfish inspection program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In an op-ed late last week, McCain said that for three weeks he and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) had asked for a vote on their amendment to scrap the “absurd Catfish Office,” which has yet to inspect any catfish, but “despite repeated requests” the chair and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Thad Cochran (R-MS), blocked a vote.
Southern state lawmakers succeeded in getting a provision in the 2008 farm bill to move catfish from under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to USDA to help protect domestic catfish farmers from the flood of cheap foreign imports, but the move has been bogged down in the details and politics. Despite having already spent about $20 million on the initiative, USDA has not yet implemented catfish inspection, five years later.
A spokesman for FSIS told Food Safety News 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.
The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly called the program a waste of taxpayer dollars because it is “duplicative” and because it would focus on Salmonella, which is not an issue with catfish, and not illegal drug residues, which could be a real concern.
“They want you to think Americans have been eating unsafe foreign catfish (it’s just catfish, of course) even though the FDA, the CDC, and the USDA itself say that’s untrue. Out of the 1.8 billion catfish enjoyed by Americans each year, only two illnesses are reported on average,” wrote McCain for Politico last week.
“I obviously support maintaining a safe food supply,” added McCain. “But seafood inspections already fall under FDA’s jurisdiction, which requires foreign catfish farms to follow the same food-safety standards as domestic farms. Unless catfish have suddenly sprouted legs, USDA should stick to meat, poultry and egg inspections.”
FDA has also been called out by GAO for having inadequate oversight over imported seafood in general — an increasingly critical issue as nearly 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is now imported.
The Senate had voted for an amendment to scrap the program last summer, the last time it considered a version of the farm bill, but no such vote was held this time around. The House Agriculture Committee recently voted to repeal the inspection scheme, but it is not clear whether the language will make it into law.
There are other significant food safety-related amendments that were left out of the farm bill, along with a large heap of amendments that were not allowed to be considered by Senate leadership.
Senator Angus King (I-ME) had offered two amendments that addressed concerns about the Food Safety Modernization Act, and these two provisions were among the 120 or so amendments “not allowed onto the bill,” according to Crystal Canney, a spokesperson for Sen. King.
King teamed up with Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) — an organic farmer who succeeded in carving out a major exemption for small farmers during the FSMA debate in 2010 — to introduce an amendment that would narrow the definition of the so-called Tester-Hagan amendment so that only FSMA-regulated food would count toward a farm’s $500,000 sales threshold.
Supporters of the measure point out that if, for example, a farm grows mostly soybeans or alfalfa, but also operates a very small CSA it would fall under FSMA if the farm had total revenue of $500,000, even if if the vast majority of the income came from a commodity not covered by FSMA.
King also introduced an amendment that would require FDA to conduct a “comprehensive study” of the impact of food safety rules on local food distribution before enforcing new measures.
Another amendment, the Stopping Costly Regulations Against Produce (SCRAP) Act, by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and James Risch (R-ID) would have blocked FDA from moving forward on the proposed on-farm produce safety rules.
None of these amendments received a vote and were not attached to the final bill.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest opposed the measures. “At their worst, these amendments effectively repeal parts of FSMA and wipe out consumer protections put in place,” said David Plunket, a staff attorney for CSPI.
Sen. Crapo’s office said their amendment is “an effort to prevent potentially devastating regulatory burdens from being placed on U.S. farmers.” Congressman Benishek (R-MI) is seeking to add the SCRAP Act to the House farm bill, which is expected to move forward this month.
The Senate bill did include a few food safety related provisions, which Food Safety News outlined last month.
The legislation directs the government to conduct a study within one year to determine “whether offering policies that provide coverage for specialty crops from food safety contamination issues will benefit agricultural producers.” The legislation requests the study evaluate different plans that could provide protection for production or revenue during food safety disasters like health advisories, outbreaks, or recalls that might hurt business.© Food Safety News