WASHINGTON, June 22, 2016 - Support in the House for a vote to kill the USDA’s catfish inspection program is formidable, but some lawmakers are still fighting to prevent a reversal of farm bill law that could give the responsibility back to the FDA. The Senate has already taken a stand against USDA inspection, but thus far, House GOP leaders have been reluctant to schedule a vote.

Republicans including Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Robert Aderholt of Alabama and Trent Kelly of Mississippi have either signed or said they will sign on to letters to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, asking that a floor vote not be held on a measure to take the inspection program away from USDA.

One, authored by Crawford, says: “Congress transferred inspection to USDA in an effort to protect consumer health by countering the pervasive use of adulterants by foreign exporters of catfish that continues to threaten the U.S. food supply.” The letter asserts that the Food and Drug Administration previously was inspecting less than 2 percent of imports while USDA is inspecting 100 percent of catfish.

A separate letter crafted by the members of the Mississippi delegation states: “The Senate’s action to nullify the (USDA) catfish program was misguided and undermines the public health threat posed by importation of adulterated catfish products. We write in hopes that the House refrains from making the same mistake.” It has been signed by Kelly, fellow Republicans Steven Palazzo and Gregg Harper and Democrat Bennie Thompson.  

On the other hand, Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., says she and 179 other members from both parties have signed on to a letter asking House leaders for a floor vote on the measure to kill USDA inspection. House aides said the sheer number of lawmakers – including a majority of House Republicans – that have signed the Hartzler letter should be enough to persuade leadership to hold a vote, although one has not yet been scheduled.

“The duplicative catfish inspection program is the poster child of wasteful government programs and everyone knows it,” Hartzler said in a statement to Agri-Pulse. “Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle recognize this is a rare opportunity in Washington to end a program that is unnecessary and wasting tax dollars.  It is the right thing to do and I am hopeful we will be able to get this across the finish line soon. The American people deserve it.”

But in the opposing camp, lawmakers argue that the claim of duplication – USDA and FDA inspectors working in the same facilities to inspect fish – just isn’t true.

“Today, only USDA has jurisdiction over catfish inspection,” the Crawford letter says. “Section 12106 of the 2014 farm bill requires the FDA and USDA carry out a Memorandum of Understanding so there is no overlap in inspection of domestic processing facilities. As a result, USDA and FDA have established, unequivocally, that inspectors from either agency will not be in same facilities that process catfish and other seafood.”

Furthermore, proponents of keeping the USDA catfish inspection program say that the department has already proven that it is better than FDA at finding contaminated imports since it began taking samples from foreign shipments in April.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service rejected two shipments of catfish from Vietnam in early May because they tested positive for banned chemical residues. On May 26, FSIS rejected a shipment of Chinese catfish because the importers refused to allow inspection. And on Monday FSIS announced a recall of about 26,000 pounds of frozen catfish products from Vietnam. FSIS said the fish entered U.S. without undergoing the necessary inspection and the agency warned people not to eat it.

Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, stressed that the fish was not being recalled over a safety issue. “A distribution error was made as part of the new USDA process, that everyone is learning, and product was disseminated prior to completion of review,” he stressed.

But proponents of keeping catfish inspection under USDA authority continue to argue that it is a matter of food safety that the program not be given back to FDA.

“USDA inspection of catfish is working,” Rep. Kelly insists. He said the letter authored by the Mississippi delegation “highlights the importance of food safety and a fair marketplace for catfish producers. Prior to USDA inspection, imported catfish-like products were sold as safe without ever being inspected. This program requires foreign countries to comply with U.S. food safety standards, which ensures American families have access to a safe food supply.”

Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack isn’t saying what he would like to see happen.

“I’m not going to offer advice to Congress on this,” Vilsack told Agri-Pulse. “I would simply ask Congress to make up its mind.”


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