WASHINGTON, June 22, 2016 – House members from catfish-producing Southern states say support is growing for their efforts to keep food safety inspection authority for catfish at the USDA.

“I don’t think it will come to a floor vote,” said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., who added that at least 50 lawmakers have now signed onto a letter to House leadership, seeking to keep inspection at USDA.

But lawmakers who say switching catfish inspection from the FDA to the USDA is a waste of taxpayer dollars already outnumber those in the pro-USDA inspection camp.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who is leading the effort to get catfish inspection transferred back to the FDA, is in talks with House leaders to try to get a vote scheduled, one Hill aide said.

“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,” Hartzler told Agri-Pulse.

The Senate in May approved a measure to kill USDA inspection. Hartzler said she has 180 signatures from both Republicans and Democrats on her letter seeking a House vote on the issue.

But Crawford said some lawmakers who signed the Hartzler letter have now come over to his side and signed his letter, seeking to avoid a vote. He was joined at a press conference today by Republicans Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, Trent Kelly of Mississippi and Ted Yoho of Florida along with Democrats Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Terri Sewell of Alabama. All said they expected to prevail in keeping the catfish inspection program with USDA because the department is doing a far better job of detecting contaminated imports since it began inspections in April than FDA did.

“Imported catfish must meet the same rigorous standards as domestic catfish,” Sewell said.

Adhering to provisions in the 2008 and 2014 farm bill, USDA took over catfish inspection from FDA this year. In March, the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service started sending inspectors to U.S. production facilities on a daily basis. A month later the agency began testing imports from countries like Vietnam, China and Thailand.

FSIS is currently evaluating food safety systems in catfish catfish-exporting countries to determine if their systems are equivalent to those in the U.S.

In early May, FSIS rejected two shipments of catfish from Vietnam because they tested positive for banned chemical residues such as antibiotics. Later that month the agency rejected a shipment of Chinese catfish because the importers refused to allow inspection.

Crawford said these rejections, so soon after FSIS began testing, show that the agency is best suited to protect U.S. consumers. While the FDA only inspected less than 2 percent of imported catfish, FSIS is inspecting all shipments, he said.

Hartzler and her allies have support from beyond Capitol Hill. David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, wrote to House leadership to ask for a vote on which agency should be doing the inspections.

“There is clear bipartisan support for a vote that will, in all likelihood, lead to the end of a program that has been targeted 10 separate times by the Government Accountability Office as a waste,” he said in the letter. “It would seem House leadership would jump at the chance to eliminate such a blatantly wasteful program. We renew our call for you to consider a vote on this matter soonest.”

USDA officials say they are not involved in what Congress eventually decides. A spokeswoman told Agri-Pulse: “The administration has always prioritized appropriate controls that result in a safe food supply for American consumers. The administration also seeks to ensure regulatory certainty for those throughout the supply chain. The USDA rule resulted from a clear congressional directive in the 2014 farm bill that required the USDA to act. The administration will continue to work with Congress to continue to maintain the safety of food supply, while ensuring regulatory certainty.”