As fish stories go, this one never seems to end.

Just when we thought it could not get any better, along comes John McCain and that baron of food safety, Tom Coburn, to say that the direction Congress took on catfish regulation in the 2008 Farm Bill should be reversed ’cause the two Senators know best.

McCain, who apparently learned a lot about Vietnamese catfish while being held incommunicado at the Hanoi Hilton, says the Farm Bill provision on catfish “is nothing more than a protectionist tactic funded at taxpayer’s expense.”

The McCain-Coburn move to repeal Section 11016 of Public Law 110-246 came one week after the General Accountability Office issued a report on duplicative federal programs.  

The GAO report said it would cost $30 million to implement the Farm Bill’s language shifting catfish inspections to USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Let’s quickly review how we got to this point.  

Domestic catfish producers worked during the ramp-up to the 2008 Farm Bill to convince Congress that their product deserved the same sort of continuous inspections that USDA provides for meat, poultry and eggs.

Led by Catfish Farmers of America, domestic catfish producers successfully argued the switch would mean safer catfish for consumers.  They painted a picture of very poor sanitation conditions in raising Asian catfish, and FDA as being totally overwhelmed by seafood imports that already get scant attention.

In their work to persuade Congress, U.S. catfish farmers enlisted numerous leaders in the food safety community. Dr. Richard Raymond, then Under-Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, suspected at the time that the catfish farmers were mainly erecting a trade barrier.    (Now, Raymond argues FSIS could take over all seafood oversight in working out more understandable jurisdictions boundaries between it and FDA.)

The law Congress enacted almost three years ago has not yet been implemented. The U.S. Trade Representative, an executive office located in the White House, had its foot on the catfish proviso from the get-go.

Washington insiders say the rule-making process now underway at USDA is another delaying tactic.

The savvy Catfish Farmers of America, with most of its members located in the same Gulf states that were impacted by the BP oil spill, tries to keep the pressure on.  It keeps working its political allies and does catfish safety advertising.

In his attack on domestic catfish, McCain brings up the unsuccessful 2002 effort to make it illegal to label pangasius, a species often called Vietnamese catfish, as “catfish.”

McCain says Vietnamese catfish “remain popular with American consumers because it’s more affordable and cheaper to produce than domestic catfish grown in aquaculture ponds.”

“Domestic producers are simply trying to create barriers for Vietnamese catfish farmers by forcing them to comply with a second inspection regime administered by an entirely different arms of the federal bureaucracy,” McCain charged.

Why McCain has parachuted into this controversy, I can only speculate.  

Reading through his March 7 statement on this subject, I can see that whoever really wrote it does not know that much, and McCain knows even less.  (On this subject only, of course. He remains an expert on picking vice presidential running  mates!)

Thank the domestic catfish producers for making us all aware of the scant inspection capacity of FDA when it comes to the imported seafood that is flooding America.  

Americans consume something like five billion pounds of seafood annually, and only about 15 percent is domestically produced. Inspectors have blessed only about one percent of it.  Checks for chemicals, drugs, and the like are extraordinarily rare.

Every week we see more FDA warning letters going out to domestic seafood processors than any other type of food manufacturer.  FDA is also responsible for making sure those foreign processors are maintaining standards equivalent to what the U.S. requires.

We have system that is like trying to drink from a fire hose.  The more I’ve learned about this, the more I cannot blame domestic catfish producers for trying to carve out an inspection regimen that makes some sense.

No, Senator McCain, new catfish inspections do not need repeal; they need expansion to cover all seafood.