So why didn’t the food safety bill currently bouncing around the lame-duck Congress have an aquaculture component?

“Quite frankly, the law is already clear,” says Ben Noble, who represents the Catfish Farmers of America in Washington.“We’ve already moved inspections from the FDA to the USDA. There’s little left to do legislatively. The responsibility now rests on the USDA and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to get it done.”

 “The (Mid-South) delegation was split on” the recent, Senate-passed bill, says Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council. “The bill was really in reaction to some of the criticism FDA has received due to food safety issues that have arisen.

“Obviously, the incidents that caught the most attention were eggs and chicken, not catfish. Even though, to us, the catfish (safety/inspection) issue has been very prominent, it hasn’t gotten nearly the national attention eggs and chickens have. And, of course, remember that those two are domestic, not international.

“Our issue is that China and Vietnam really don’t want the USDA to put inspectors in their plants. If you want to get down to the bottom of it, that’s what it amounts to.  And if our proposal was to be implemented, that’s exactly what would happen…

“We find this most unfortunate because when you say ‘food safety’ in catfish country, it’s pretty clear we’ve lost 60 percent of the industry to imports proven to be contaminated.”

Currently, the switch of aquaculture inspections to USDA remains hung up in the OMB. Government officials have been reluctant to make definitive statements on when the issue may be resolved.

“It’s shameful and I’m embarrassed that we haven’t been able to get a rule,” says Morgan. “Not that we haven’t gotten the rule we wanted – just a rule. We haven’t gotten any rule. And the last farm bill said this was supposed to be done in 180 days. That 180 days was up 360 days ago.”

Will there be a point when the U.S. catfish industry drops current efforts to force USDA inspections and tries a different tactic?

“We’ve got a conference call scheduled to talk about this,” says Morgan. “My view is we may have to go the legal route and sue. We can’t even get a rule out.

“We’ve already gone public with this. We’ve bought ads in Politico and Roll Call, put out the videos on YouTube. But it isn’t moving the needle.

So, I don’t know what’s left to do” besides legal action.

Morgan says Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor “is picking up the torch (from Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee) for the majority side of the aisle. He’s studying mechanisms and means to use to get the White House to move.”

However, with Sen. Lincoln’s defeat in the November election, “it’s like starting over.”

Noble says those he represents continue to “be hopeful the rule will move forward. They’re well over deadline and our point to the Obama administration is: Congress is beginning to talk about a new farm bill when the last one hasn’t even been fully implemented. We’re extremely frustrated.

“We continue to be concerned about the quality of fish coming into the United States. That’s why we want increased, more thorough inspections. Until that happens, we still have an aquaculture industry where only 2 percent of the imported products are being inspected.”

dbennett@farmpress.com