President Obama’s $3.77 trillion 2014 budget claims savings of more than $25 billion the first year and that it will slash the deficit $2 trillion over a decade. The White House says it will largely achieve those savings through cutting waste, closing tax loopholes, and shuttering duplicative government programs.

Advocates of the U.S. catfish industry are not happy with the Obama budget, which calls for the abolishment of a yet-to-be-implemented USDA-FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) catfish inspection regime.

In the 2008 farm bill, Congress ordered FSIS to take over the inspection of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite the law and years to prepare, the USDA program hasn’t gotten off the ground.

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The Obama budget is only the latest hurdle for catfish farmers. Already weary from the long inspection program fight and years of low prices for their catfish, farmers were further stung in recent weeks. In late March, both the House (H.R. 1313) and Senate (S. 362) introduced legislation aimed to keep the inspections under the FDA. This was followed by a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that sides with FDA’s current seafood inspections over the USDA program.

Ben Pentecost, president of Catfish Farmers of America (CFA), addressed the White House budget and GAO report in an April 11 statement. The organization, he said, "is stunned by the misinformation recently distributed by the GAO and White House regarding USDA catfish inspections. The costs referenced in the GAO report are simply wrong. No funds have been spent to date on USDA catfish inspections because the program as outlined in the 2008 farm bill has not yet been implemented. Furthermore, if USDA enacts catfish inspections, there will be no overlap with other federal food inspection programs. Moving catfish inspections to the USDA is a consolidation, not duplication of inspection programs.

"CFA supports USDA catfish inspections because we know that the Food and Drug Administration provides insufficient safeguards for the American consumer. By FDA's own admission, they inspect a shockingly low percentage of the seafood coming into the United States."

Pentecost, who spoke with Farm Press shortly before the statement’s release, says the USDA has “dragged its feet on ever implementing the inspections. The ground-floor FSIS employees seemed all for it but the block came from above them.  

“Now, the USDA inspection program is caught up in the (Obama) budget cuts. The projected cost of program isn’t as high as what is commonly claimed -- it’s actually about half the $30 million being cited lately.”

FDA’s cited lower costs for inspections make sense, says Pentecost, “because they don’t actually do much inspecting. They do a visual inspection on two percent of all seafood. They do a thorough, hands-on inspection on less than two-tenths of one percent.

“Well, if someone is able to get 99.8 percent of their product into this country without it being checked, they’re going to be happy. The biggest opponents of the USDA inspections are the importers of seafood. A large percentage – close to 89 percent -- of seafood consumed in this country is imported.”

This is a food-safety issue that’s being dodged, insists Pentecost.

“On the small percentage of imports that FDA has inspected, they’ve found numerous cases of illegal drugs and other contaminants in the seafood. Project that out over all the imports and you’re looking at a large amount of tainted product.”

An example bolstering Pentecost’s point: U.S. tilapia imports, primarily from China, leapt from 425,168,000 pounds in 2011 to 501,426,000 in 2012. The FDA refused 70 tilapia shipments due to banned drugs, chemicals and salmonella.

Asked to explain why charges continue that the inspection programs would be duplicative, Pentecost says that would only happen in narrow circumstances. “There might be duplication if there are different species coming in on the same ship. FDA is supposed to have responsibility for some species, FSIS for others.

“It’s been quite common for some of the importers to hide product. There may be a shipload supposed to be comprised of a certain fish. Then, the bottom layer of the shipment is some other species. There are a lot of tricks.”