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.”