It is just not an efficient use of resources to move catfish inspection to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a frank new report by the Government Accountability Office.
Seafood safety falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but language in the the 2008 Farm Bill mandated that domestic catfish get special treatment and be inspected by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which currently oversees meat, poultry and processed egg products.
With food safety regulation already highly fragmented, disjointed, and overlapping, why would Congress add to the problem by singling out a certain sector? The idea was to give domestic catfish producers a leg up on foreign producers, who have been flooding the U.S. market with catfish, or catfish-like species (there is no settled definition of “catfish”).
In 2002, imported catfish made up around 2 percent of the U.S. market and by 2010 imports accounted for 23 percent of the market, according to GAO.
Senator Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi — a major catfish-raising state — has been pressing USDA to put the inspection program in place for three years. At a recent Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, Cochran brought the issue up with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“The outcome of this inspection process remains important to the U.S. fish industry, particularly in the South where a substantial investment has been made to produce catfish,” said Cochran. “We authorized this program to assure Americans that imported fish is being held to the same standards as domestic catfish and to put our catfish industry on more equal footing with the global competition.”
But the GAO report questions whether the USDA inspection program would improve food safety, pointing out that federal regulators are using “outdated and limited” information in their risk assessment, upon which the inspection program would be based.
The GAO notes that, in the risk assessment, FSIS identified just one outbreak of Salmonella, but the incident “was not clearly linked to catfish.”
The outbreak cited also occurred in 1991, before the FDA’s 1997 Seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point regulations, which requires firms to identify where hazards might occur in their process and take steps to mitigate the risks.
According to GAO, no catfish-linked Salmonella outbreaks have happened since.
“Other federal agencies questioned if FSIS had adequately demonstrated a Salmonella problem in catfish,” reads the report. “For example, FDA does not generally have such concerns. Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) also stated that FSIS did not adequately demonstrate that Salmonella was a problem with catfish.
NMFS and other federal agencies have argued that it is more likely that chemical and drug residues in farm raised catfish are potential hazards, but the White House Office of Management and Budget told FSIS that Salmonella was the most practical hazard to evaluate, because of the strong data on Salmonella-linked deaths and illnesses in the United States, according to the report.
The GAO also argues that more fragmentation and overlap is not what the federal food safety system needs. On top of the illogical jurisdictional lines it would create, GAO says the move would cost taxpayers more. The program would provide continuous inspections of domestic processing processing and it would require the same for imported catfish, which only makes up 3 percent of imported seafood.
FSIS estimates that it would cost taxpayers and the industry $14 million each year, and around 98 percent of that cost would be borne by taxpayers. And money has already been spent. Between 2009 and 2011, the agency spent $15.4 million in the developing the program and is slated to spend $4.4 million more in FY 2012.
On top of that, the report warns that three agencies — FDA, FSIS, and NFMS — would share responsibility for inspecting certain seafood processing facilities, an inefficient use of government resources.
The GAO concluded the report by recommending that Congress consider repealing the provisions in the Farm Bill that assigned USDA the responsibility. Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) have introduced an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill to reverse the move. Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), Jack Kingstom (R-GA), and a handful of other members have introduced a similar measure in the House.
The USDA responded to GAO’s report with appreciation, but said the department was committed to completing the rulemaking process for catfish inspection, as Congress directed.