WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - A Senate measure to force the USDA to stop its inspection program for domestic and imported catfish passed a legislative hurdle Tuesday, allowing further debate and a final vote that is scheduled for today.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the 57 to 40 vote “a victory for taxpayers.”
Congress ordered the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to take over catfish inspection from the FDA in the 2008 and 2014 farm bills - despite objections from some lawmakers that it was a waste of money.Lawmakers like Sens. McCain, Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have repeatedly sought to repeal the USDA catfish inspection mandate that opponents say is designed to benefit U.S. farmers by imposing stricter regulations on imported catfish. And Heritage Action for America weighed in, calling it a “key vote” for its legislative scorecard.
“These overlapping, duplicative, and possibly conflicting regulatory regimes will cost taxpayers an unnecessary $140 million,” the group emphasized in a release.
The latest attempt comes just after the USDA blocked two shipments of contaminated catfish imports from Vietnam.
“FSIS confirmed through laboratory testing that two shipments of (catfish) products are violative for dyes and one of the two shipments is also violative for enrofloxacin, a fluoroquinolone antibiotic,” an agency spokeswoman told Agri-Pulse. “None of these chemicals are approved for use in fish meant for human consumption and cause the fish to be adulterated. The shipments have been refused entry to the United States.”
Supporters of USDA’s catfish inspection program like Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., were quick to cite USDA’s action as proof that the switch from FDA is helping to keep unsafe food out of the U.S.
“Had this program not been in place … this violation would not have been caught and the product would have been allowed to enter into (U.S.) commerce,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said today before the vote.
While the Catfish Farmers of America are staunch supporters of USDA’s catfish inspection program, the National Fisheries Institute warns that it will spark retaliation from Vietnam.
“The impact of a WTO suit from Vietnam, which Vietnam would win … would be not only an impact on an important Ag export market but (would result in) retaliatory tariffs from that market on U.S. Ag exports,” said Gavin Gibbons, an NFI spokesman.
Vietnam ships hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of catfish to the U.S. every year and the country has accused the U.S. of using stricter USDA regulations to erect an unfair trade barrier.
But Roberts also appealed to his fellow senators not to open up the farm bill.
Farm bills, he said, take years of negotiation to craft and should be considered an unbreakable pact with farmers.
“When a farm bill is passed, any producer of any product expects almost as if it is a contract that they can depend on,” Roberts said. “And so if you have a burgeoning industry of domestic catfish, you want to make doggone sure that they are safe and we have no imports that represent a health hazard.”
As to the extra cost – USDA spent about $30 million to set up its catfish inspection program and expects to spend about $15 million per year to run it – Roberts said the money was worth the results.
“One person’s wasteful money is another person’s valuable investment,” he said.
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