WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2016 – Congress’ decision to take catfish inspection away from the FDA and give it to USDA was sharply criticized as a waste of money and resources at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing today in which only one lawmaker dissented.
“Catfish is an extremely low-risk food product,” said Pennsylvania Republican Joseph Pitts, chairman of the Health Subcommittee, in his opening remarks at the hearing titled Waste and Duplication in the USDA Catfish Inspection Program. “Explicitly creating a program exclusively for catfish is unnecessary and directs resources away from high-risk foods to focus on a food that is one of the safest.”
Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican from the catfish-producing state of Mississippi, was the only lawmaker at the hearing to offer a defense of the USDA catfish inspection program.
He stressed that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has been successfully blocking thousands of pounds of foreign catfish contaminated with illegal antibiotics and other drugs.
Since FSIS began inspecting imported catfish on April 15, about 343,000 pounds of foreign catfish has either been rejected at the border or removed from commerce in the U.S., according to industry and government officials.
“Overwhelming evidence suggests that imported catfish … represent a significant food safety threat to the American people,” Harper said during the hearing. “Unfortunately the FDA inspection system was inadequate and it conducted inspections on a mere 0.2 percent of catfish species.”
William Jones, FDA deputy director for the agency’s Office of Food Safety and a witness at the hearing, stressed that he did not believe that catfish inspection was given to USDA because of any deficiency at FDA. He also highlighted the agency’s targeted approach to inspecting imports, which dedicates more resources to product that comes from the riskiest sources.
Congress took inspection authority for catfish away from the FDA and gave it to the USDA through provisions in the 2008 and 2014 farm bills. The switch was seen as a boon for domestic catfish farmers who have been struggling for years to compete with growing imports from countries like Vietnam, China and Thailand. Proponents of the switch said USDA would do a more thorough job of inspecting imports and holding foreign producers to the same standards as their U.S. counterparts.
But opponents like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said the billions of dollars it cost to move catfish inspection to USDA was an unnecessary burden on taxpayers because FDA could do the job adequately.
McCain led the successful effort to pass a measure in the Senate in May to move inspection back to FDA. The House has failed to vote on the measure, despite lawmakers’ claims that they have enough votes to approve it. The Senate measure – S.J. Res. 28 – will expire this year.
One of the core criticisms from McCain and others was the potential for “duplicative” inspections that were likely to occur in facilities that processed both catfish and other seafood that still needed to be inspected by FDA officials.
It was also a problem pointed out in several reports issued by the Government Accountability Office and it was discussed today in the hearing by Steve Morris, a GAO director.
“In May, 2012 we reported that USDA’s proposed catfish inspection program would further fragment the responsibility for overseeing food safety, introduce overlap of additional costs to taxpayers and would likely not enhance the safety of catfish,” Morris said in his testimony.
Since that 2012 report, USDA and FDA signed a memorandum of understanding to, in part, make sure the two agencies were not both doing the same work at the same processing facilities.
FDA’s Jones said the MOU has been effective in preventing duplication of inspection chores.
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