Catfish wars continue as farm bill nears completion

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2014 - Catfish reappeared on Capitol Hill today, as a spate of letters from opponents of a controversial UDSA inspection program began to circulate among lawmakers and officials.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sent a letter to  Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asking them to nix what he called a “duplicative” inspection program run by USDA.

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“If we do not repeal the USDA Catfish Inspection Program, hardworking farmers and ranchers across the United States may find themselves reeling from the effect of a multibillion dollar trade war,” McCain wrote. “The need to repeal the catfish program far outweighs whatever parochial reasons exist to prop up a small number of domestic catfish farmers.”

Twelve taxpayer advocacy groups, including the libertarian R Street Institute and the conservative Taxpayers for Common Sense, echoed McCain's requests in a separate letter sent today.

“Repealing the USDA catfish inspection program is common sense, will save money and is a step in the right direction of fiscal responsibility,” they wrote.

The U.S. Chamber Commerce, the influential business lobby, sent its own letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on Monday making similar arguments.

This spring, the House Agriculture Committee included repeal of the USDA catfish inspection program in its farm bill, although it's not clear the measure will be included in the farm bill that eventually emerges from a House-Senate conference. An aide to Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a longtime opponent of the inspection program, said the congresswoman is pushing for a vote of the conferees on the provision.

Catfish have been an improbable source of contention in the farm bill since lawmakers first started discussing the legislation two years ago. At the heart of the issue is a provision in the 2008 farm bill switching authority for catfish inspection from FDA to USDA. Sen. Cochran, who supported the provision, argued imported catfish (often from Asian countries like Vietnam) should be subjected to more stringent inspections than the FDA was providing.

The move was supported by catfish producers in a number of Southern states.

But opponents including McCain say USDA's inspection program is duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds, citing a May 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found “responsibility for inspecting catfish should not be assigned to USDA.”

The program's opponents also argue Vietnam and other catfish exporters could allege U.S. protectionism and retaliate through trade.

Correction: Previous versions of this article incorrectly stated that Sen. McCain sent his letter to Sen. Stabenow and Rep. Lucas. The letter was sent to Sens. Stabenow and Cochran. 

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