Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) is again pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to begin regulating catfish, an issue of great importance to catfish farmers in Arkansas struggling to compete with a flux of imports from Southeast Asia.

Yesterday during a hearing to consider a number of nominees for USDA posts, including Dr. Elizabeth Hagen for Under Secretary for Food Safety, Lincoln brought up the status of the catfish regulations several times.

A catfish inspection rule was mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill, but has yet to be implemented. The provision shifts seafood inspection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which currently inspects around 2 percent of the 5.2 billion pounds of seafood imported into the U.S. annually.

“The 2008 Farm Bill was very clear that all catfish, domestic and imported, must meet the highest USDA standards in order to ensure the health and safety of American consumers,” said Lincoln. “The 18-month delay in the implementation of the catfish inspection rule continues to expose consumers to products that originate from countries who do not abide by the same strict safety standards as we do. Today’s hearing was an opportunity to hear from Dr. Hagen that this important economic and food safety issue that will be at the top of her agenda if she is confirmed.”

During the hearing, Lincoln asked Hagen how, if confirmed, she planned to move the agency forward on the regulations. “I believe that this is one of the more pressing food safety concerns that exists right now,” said Lincoln.

Hagen briefly went over the status of the much-delayed implementation of the new rule and explained to the Chairwoman moving forward would be a top priority if she is confirmed.

As Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, recently explained that the progress towards implementation remains uncertain. “The proposed rule has languished in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) because of objections raised by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative since some countries that currently export catfish to the U.S. do not think that they can meet the more stringent food safety standards that FSIS will require.”

  • Doc Raymond

    “one of the most pressing food safety concerns that exists right now” to quote Senator Lincoln. If she truly believes that, we all are in trouble with her as Chair of the Senate Ag Committee. When was the last time we had an outbreak of food borne illness linked to catfish? Never, I believe, would be the correct answer. This is all about protection of the domestic catfish industry, pure and simple, and she is struggling to get re-elected. By the way, the Farm Bill did not move seafood to the USDA, it only moved catfish–not oysters that sicken hundreds every near, now shrimp, not tilapia, just catfish. Brilliant. No wonder it “languishes” at OMB with concerns raised by the US Trade Representative. At least someone recognizes it lack of merit. And the FSIS had 18 months to implement the new rules, which is really not a lot of time when you consider the rule making process. Let’s not point the finger at them on this one.

  • Patrick

    I saw that video as well. But did you see this: back in October the Times ran a piece where Dr. Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (when talking about meat inspection) said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.” Not just what’s best for public health. Really?

  • Seafood Detective

    There’s not much of an argument against the idea that America’s food safety system is the best in the world. But in reality it’s the combination of FDA and USDA work that makes it such.
    To hold out USDA as the Holy Grail of food safety is folly. The ever growing list of recalls and alerts posted almost daily by USDA isn’t particularly comforting.
    While slaughter house video like this really makes you wonder just how effective USDA is.

  • Grace

    For anyone who hasn’t been following this ridiculous regulatory soap opera here’s another detail that might make you cringe. The protectionists who are manipulating this manufactured food safety issue seek to define “catfish” one way in the proposed USDA rule, while the 2002 Farm Bill, the State of Alabama, the State of Arkansas, the State of Louisiana, the State of Mississippi and the State of Tennessee define it another… a definition that would keep it at FDA and away from USDA. They’re not even on the same page with themselves.