Ag Policy Blog

Congress in Muddy Waters over Catfish Inspections

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Muddy Waters had his "Catfish Blues," which seems kinda logical when you think about it.

Catfish policy, though, is like swimming through muddy waters. An effort spawned in the Senate to change channels on catfish inspections seems to be swimming upstream in the House.

There are just so many bad puns to fish out on this.

As it is, there is a real conflict in Congress regarding catfish inspections that impacts the view on quality of food-safety inspections, domestic farming market and the trade relationship with countries such as Vietnam.

After a push from the 2008 and 2014 farm bills, USDA finally finished a rule and began an 18-month transition period in March to inspect Siluriformes Fish, which includes catfish. The inspections by the Food Safety Inspection Service shifted inspections away from the Food & Drug Administration. The USDA rules include standards for defining catfish and country-of-origin labels, as well as import rules.

The U.S. Senate voted 55-43 in late May to overturn the USDA inspection rules under the Congressional Review Act. The law essentially allows Congress to overturn an agency regulation with a majority vote. The effort was led by Sen John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been pushing back on USDA's catfish rule for several years. He spoke at length last year on the Senate floor on the topic. McCain argues against the USDA rule on a couple of fronts: first, he argues the rule is simply a protectionist measure meant to protect U.S. catfish producers; second, McCain claims the rule is a waste of money because it costs USDA more money than when the FDA was doing the same task.

Some groups have claimed the USDA inspection is duplicative, but USDA and FDA have a memorandum of understand with FDA essentially yielding the job to USDA. There is a claim to be made that duplication still exists because FDA continues inspections for all other seafood products exempt for catfish.

Fiscal conservative groups have latched on to the catfish fight, making some of the same claims as McCain. Heritage Action, Freedom Works and others are calling on the House to also vote on the Senate resolution.…

The House now may take up the Senate resolution after 177 House members (124 Republicans and 53 Democrats) signed a letter earlier this week asking House leaders to vote on the resolution.…

As Food Safety News noted, House members can win either way they vote. "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."…

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom reported Friday on a statement from the Mississippi-based Catfish Farmers of America. The group linked to a memo from four top House ag-and-food congressmen oppose bringing up the Senate resolution. They include: House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas; ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala.; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who also sits on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. The four wrote that they do not believe the USDA inspection program is costly or duplicative, as opponents have said, and that USDA did not circumvent Congress when it wrote the regulations.

“Accordingly, we ask you to oppose any effort to transfer catfish inspection back to FDA and instead protect the health of the U.S. consumer and preserve the CRA’s role in Congressional oversight activities,” the memo ends.…

The issue is drawing a great deal of attention by Mississippi lawmakers and press, which has noted that domestic catfish producers have lost significant market share in the last decade. As the Mississippi Business Journal noted, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has nearly all of the catfish producing the processing the state in his district. Thompson “believes that we’ve already debated and passed this inspection in both the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bill,” said his legislative director, Cory Horton.…

Catfish are jumpin'.

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6/20/2016 | 3:35 PM CDT
DTNs new blog format stinks!!!!