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Senate votes to end USDA catfish inspections, which just got underway

The U.S. Senate has voted to shut down the nation’s only catfish inspection program, a move that would put more Americans at risk of exposure to carcinogens and antibiotics from Asian white fish, such as Vietnamese pangasius.

Senators approved the Joint Resolution by a vote of 55-43 on Wednesday. It now goes to the House of Representatives.

If it passes the House, it would still have to be signed by President Obama before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) catfish inspection program would be shut down. If that happens, catfish would likely revert back to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where only 1 to 2 percent of seafood imports are inspected because of budget constraints.

mekongfeeding_406x250The program has been in effect for both domestic and foreign catfish species only since April 15, and it may be drawing fire from Capitol Hill because it is finding dangerous carcinogens and antibiotics in fish shipments from Asian nations.

Too much of that might not be good for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an Obama legacy agenda item. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did not address TPP when going for the catfish inspection kill on Wednesday but referenced what he called “classic farm bill politics.” Inspection of all foreign and domestic catfish species was mandated in the farm bill.

The joint resolution terminates catfish inspection through a technical action nullifying a rule published in December 2015 that set up the mandatory inspection program.

If the House votes to cut it, the catfish inspection program would be the second USDA food safety program to be killed since President Obama won a second term. Three years ago, Obama and Congress agreed to kill the Microbiological Data Program (MDP). That ended about 80 percent of the fresh produce testing in the U.S. That $5-million program funded state agriculture labs to sample and test fresh produce in their areas. That $5 million was about 0.01 percent of the federal budget.

Catfish inspection was moved to USDA from FDA in the 2008 Farm Bill, but the transition, complete with a memorandum of understanding between the two agencies, did not occur until much more recently. While using a risk-based program for seafood, FDA only inspects about 1 to 2 percent of the food products entering the U.S. which are under its jurisdiction.

Some claim duplication of efforts
“Yes, let’s treat all catfish the same,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) shortly before the Senate vote. “Vote ‘No’ to protect American consumers from cancer-causing agents.” he added.

The duplication that existed between USDA and FDA on catfish inspection between about 2009 and 2015 often caught the attention of government accountants and brought numerous taxpayer groups into the campaign to kill the program. In a letter to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), those groups called the USDA catfish program an “unnecessary and duplicative” bureaucracy that has been targeted for criticism 10 times by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The fiscal critics said USDA catfish inspection would cost $14 million annually, while FDA “currently spends” less than $700,000 annually to inspect catfish. USDA also reportedly spent $20 million on program development since the 2008 Farm Bill became law.

The push to kill catfish inspection could boost prospects for the TPP, the proposed free trade agreement that the president recently touted while visiting Vietnam.

Vietnam wanted the USDA catfish inspection removed as an unfair barrier to trade. Food retailers claimed the USDA catfish inspection program would take five more years to grant “equivalency” determinations to countries like Vietnam. They said the delays will keep a fifth of the “value white fish” supply off the market, increasing prices for “affordable” fish products.

Those groups — the Food Marketing Institute, National Retail Federation, and the Retail Industry Leader Association — also insist that the USDA catfish inspection program is not justified on a “food safety basis.” They say Salmonella, which is brought up in the proposed rule going back to 2011, has not been a problem with either foreign pangasius or domestic catfish. The risk, according to those who support USDA inspections, is carcinogens, such as Crystal Violet and Malachite Green, dangerous dyes which cause cancer.

Sanitary and environmental conditions in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries that sell seafood to the U.S. also concern those favoring inspections. Another recent import shipment to the U.S. was stopped for containing the antibiotic enrofloxacin.

USDA food safety programs, including the continuous inspection of meat, poultry, eggs and catfish, only account for 4.8 percent of the agency’s $25 billion of discretional spending for fiscal year 2017, or less than 1 percent of its overall annual budget of $155 billion.

The department made no response to the Senate vote.

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