If and when they allow it to come to a vote, leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives are apparently allowing individual members to vote their conscience when it comes to USDA catfish inspections. They can either support the Senate-approved resolution doing away with USDA catfish inspection and claim they are fiscal hawks, or they can oppose it and claim it’s a necessary food safety program. bigcatfish_406x250Catfish inspection in the House, like the Senate, is not going to be about partisan politics as the Rs and Ds are hopping all over on this one. At least 176 House members, led by Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), want Senate Joint Resolution 28 (SJR-28) brought to the floor of the House for a vote, according to a letter to the leadership they all signed. Catfish inspection under the U.S. Department of Agriculture is more expensive than when the task fell to the Food and Drug Administration, but not by much. USDA’s latest estimate is that the program costs $2.5 million a year, for a net increase of the $1.44 million FDA was spending. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which sees no reason for the House to even bring SJR-28 to a vote, says USDA catfish inspection is “more robust and rigorous than that at FDA.” Freedom Works, a fiscally conservative libertarian group claiming six million members, contends that killing USDA catfish inspections will “save taxpayers an estimated $14 million a year.” The higher number came from a three-year-old GAO estimate that Catfish Farmers of America says is outdated. Ever since the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills called for moving catfish inspections to USDA, the move has been criticized as duplicative and costly. But domestic catfish farmers, mostly found in the Gulf states, have that claimed neither of those arguments carry any weight now. The Catfish Farmers of America says that any duplication that ever existed is history because USDA and FDA have both signed a Memorandum of Understanding making USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) the federal government’s sole catfish inspector. As for costs, they say get over it. An extra $1.5 million for much better protection is well worth the money, they maintain, and it’s a tiny amount in FSIS’s $1 billion in annual inspection costs. Jimmy Avery, Mississippi State University Extension agent and professor of aquaculture, says that FDA personnel are stretched and could only inspect about 2 percent of Siluriformes entering the U.S. And FDA subjected less than 0.2 percent of those to laboratory analysis for microbial contamination or drug residues. The Senate vote of 55-43 on SJR-28 came May 25 on the heels of President Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia, including a visit to catfish-exporting countries such as Vietnam. Trade politics are clearly at work with this issue. The Mississippi Business Journal recently reported that when U.S. catfish farmers started working to shift inspections to USDA, their domestic product accounted for two-thirds of the U.S. market and foreign imports took up the other third. In the years since, those numbers have reversed, with foreign catfish now dominating two-thirds of the market and the Gulf states holding on to only one-third. Under the lightly used Congressional Review Act (CRA), SJR-28 would do away with the rules under which the USDA catfish inspection program became fully effectively on March 1. In the relatively short time since then, USDA’s continuous inspection program for catfish has detained shipments from Vietnam for contaminants and refused entry to products from China after shippers prevented FSIS personnel from conducting tests. A bipartisan foursome — Reps. K. Michael Conway (R-TX); Collin C. Peterson (D-MN); Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL), and Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) — are urging their colleagues “to oppose any effort to transfer catfish inspection back to FDA and instead protect the health of the U.S. consumer … .” They also argue that the use of the CRA should not be permitted because it is intended for use only in those instances where the will of Congress is being circumvented, not where its will is being implemented, as is the case with catfish inspection. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)