Following Wednesday’s House Agriculture Committee farm bill mark-up, there remains hope – however slim -- that the USDA will finally implement a catfish inspection program. The bill passed out of committee on a 35-11 vote.

Backed by U.S. catfish producers, the 2008 farm bill called for the USDA to take over seafood inspections from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Producers said the FDA inspection regime was too lax and advocated for the USDA to conduct inspections much like those done for beef and pork. Imports, too, were targeted as a potential food safety hazard for U.S. consumers.

For more, see here.

Four years on, faced with major backlash, the USDA is yet to begin the mandated inspections. On Wednesday evening, Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler offered an amendment to the House farm bill that would keep the agency from ever starting the task.

Hartzler’s amendment – which follows a similar, successful effort in the Senate farm bill -- would have repealed “a provision of the 2008 (farm bill) establishing inspection and grading program for catfish and other of farm-raised fish.”

Shortly before the House mark-up, Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council and a long-time advocate for the USDA inspections, said the Senate action was enlightening. “The biggest message in this whole process: we had no idea how important inspection (of imported seafood) was until we tried to get it implemented by USDA after it was enacted in the 2008 farm bill.  The importers of these imposter catfish are spending a lot of money to stop their imported catfish from meeting the same USDA food safety inspection as imported chicken, beef, and pork do today.”

Explaining her amendment, Hartzler offered up a list of reasons – including an erroneous claim that the inspections are duplicative -- to jettison the USDA program. Those reasons were then shot down by lawmakers in favor of the inspections.

This is a bipartisan amendment supported and co-sponsored by over 18 members of this committee. … It is designed to save taxpayer dollars by eliminating an unnecessary, duplicative program while, at the same time, ensuring American farm commodities aren’t put at risk by a potential trade war with our vital trading partners,” said Hartzler.

“Specifically, our amendment eliminates the proposed move for catfish inspections from the FDA to the USDA. This move was inserted during the 2008 farm bill during conference without open debate and has since caused problems for the USDA in implementation. After four years the program has not yet been established.”

Hartzler said the program would cost $30 million to set up and $15 million every year thereafter. “Currently, FDA inspects all fish and seafood at $700,000 a year. This USDA program, if it were to be implemented, would cost 20 times more than the FDA’s.”

Further, “this unnecessary program will violate WTO agreements and jeopardize an agriculture economic recovery.

“The agricultural commodity groups and individual companies have expressed concerns that creating this duplicative inspection program may start a trade war with our vital trading partners. Almost every U.S. commodity organization submitted comments opposing moving inspections to USDA when the rule was published…

“Repealing this USDA catfish inspection program is a common sense approach to food safety and promotes open trade for U.S. agricultural exports and the wise use of tax dollars – stopping the misuse and waste of our precious tax dollars.”

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member, wasn’t convinced.

“We passed this in 2008 in the farm bill. It was good policy then and it’s good policy now. We should stick with it. Allowing USDA to go through the rule-making process is what we should do -- with industry input so they get it right.

“It is not duplicative,” continued Peterson. “The inspection is shifting from FDA to USDA. The USDA oversees many of our food safety activities now.

“Frankly, in my opinion, FDA should have never been given authority over food safety. We should have kept that with the USDA in the first place and we’d have had a lot better situation in this country. If I had my way we’d take all the (food) inspection away from FDA and put it with USDA.”

Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford, with catfish producers among his constituents, then brought out the big stick. “Unfortunately, (Hartzler) is attempting to change the discussion from food safety to a totally unfounded debate on duplicative regulations and trade barriers. As a conservative member from an ag district, there’s nothing more that I’d like to do than scrap duplicative regulations and dismantle barriers to free trade.

“Getting rid of the USDA catfish (inspection) program, however, does neither. First, it is not duplicative. … Catfish inspection is simply being transferred from one agency to another. Second, it doesn’t create a trade barrier because it simply requires our foreign trade partners to play on a level playing field.”

Why is the USDA inspection program so critical to food safety?

“Advocates for Ms. Hartzler’s proposal completely ignore the dangers posed by banned substances which have been discovered in shipments of catfish,” said Crawford. “Government import refusal data, FDA import alerts … show that banned drugs and chemicals have been discovered in fish imported from Vietnam and China. Even the FDA’s deputy commissioner for international special programs testified before a Senate committee in 2007 saying that the use of unapproved antibiotics and chemicals in aquaculture raise significant health concerns. He went on to say that FDA found unapproved new animal drugs and unsafe additives in 25 percent of the samples from China.”

Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry “tested catfish imported from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand,” said Crawford. “They found that one in every three fish tested positive for harmful antibiotics not approved under WTO sanitary and phytosanitary standards.”

Crawford then pointed to research done by Carole Engle, from the Aquaculture Department of the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Engle, well-known in the aquaculture industry, found that “half the food fed to Vietnamese fish is homemade without any monitoring to eliminate the use of harmful chemicals or drugs. I’ve seen pictures from her research in Vietnam where you can see an outhouse where human waste is released directly into the water being pumped into catfish farms. Pretty shocking stuff.”

For more on Engle’s work, see here.

“Even the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development admitted in November of 2009 the difficulties of monitoring and managing quality of feed, water, environment and fish products,” said Crawford. “Truth is, the Mekong River is polluted with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. We’re importing more and more catfish every year that are raised in conditions I just illustrated.

“If the FDA was doing its job before the 2008 farm bill passed, there would be no need to switch over to the USDA. But the truth of the matter is they weren’t doing the job – currently, the FDA is capable of only testing about 3 percent of our imported seafood products.

“The USDA catfish (inspection) program came about as a result of all the data and concerns I just laid before you. In 2008, the (U.S.) catfish industry asked for the USDA inspection program, which is stricter than the program they had under the FDA.”

Alabama Rep. Martha Roby wondered why the catfish inspection program “has created so much opposition. It appears the seafood importers have led the opposition to USDA catfish inspection.”

To explain “relentless” opposition to the inspections Roby brought up “FDA testimony that about 80 percent of the seafood in this country is imported from approximately 130 countries. For fiscal year 2009, the FDA tested only about .1 percent of all imported seafood for drug residues.

“I think this information helps us understand why importers would be so opposed to USDA actually establishing and implementing catfish inspections. … I’d like to highlight that supporting this amendment means that our government shouldn’t improve our food safety system. … Remember, if this amendment is agreed to, the committee is actually telling the USDA to not even finalize the rules and regulations for catfish inspection.”

Processing facility inspections were also a concern for Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, committee chairman. “For fiscal years 2005 through 2010, FDA inspected on average 84 foreign seafood processing facilities annually out of 17,000 worldwide.

“FDA’s inspection is lacking here at home where the Inspector General found that more than half of all domestic catfish plants operated five or more years without an inspection.”

During the debate, Hartzler’s only cover came via a lukewarm argument from Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman in favor of the amendment.  While Stutzman agreed that the USDA should do all such inspections, he advocated starting over with the catfish program.

“I do agree with (Peterson) that the USDA should be doing all the inspections,” said Stutzman. “That’s why this amendment is appropriate – let’s start over. … I think the appropriate thing is to start over and make sure we don’t have two programs that continue to move forward…

“I’ve spoken with Mr. Crawford and I agree with the intent, we all have the same goal here. But to make sure we get it right we need to support this amendment and start over, make sure the jurisdiction is transferred over to the USDA. If we let the FDA continue to keep their fingers in it, they’ll always fight to keep their fingers in the inspection programs.”

The amendment was defeated on a 25-20 vote.