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.”

The few against nations

As for help on Capitol Hill, the struggling U.S. catfish sector has found it difficult to make inroads.

“A lot gets done in Washington, obviously, based on how much lobbying power you have. So, we have a shrinking U.S. catfish industry financed by a few hundred farmers. We’re up against the lobbying power of countries.

“When we go to Washington, a few farmers will call on our congressmen. We often find the ambassador of Vietnam has been around, as well.”

The pressure to preserve the inspection status quo is being exerted in a number of ways. Several U.S. commodity groups have spoken out against the USDA inspections. “American soybean folks want to export beans to China for fish food. Beef producers want to export their products to Vietnam. The Vietnamese have said if the United States slows down the importation of their catfish, they’ll slow down imports of U.S. beef.

“Then, there are some northeastern states where the imported fish is brought in and further processed. It must be cheaper to buy Vietnamese product than to process fish they’ve caught.”

Pentecost – who farms in Doddsville, Miss. – says current prices for U.S. catfish, “aren’t where they need to be but seem to be firming a bit. They still aren’t quite enough to cover the cost of feed. I don’t think we’ll see a break in the cost of feed until the new grain crops come in.

“I hate to say it, but it doesn’t look like 2013 will be profitable. We’ll probably lose some more catfish farmers. Farmers just won’t do what it takes to raise catfish if they can’t make a little money at it.”

Is the USDA inspection program dead? Is there still hope it might be implemented?

“We’ll continue to plug the program. The country needs it! It’s the right thing to do. The FDA hasn’t been getting the job done in all seafood. They’ve admitted that.

“We don’t want to give up on the USDA inspections yet. I do think it’s a long-shot that we can save it. But it isn’t something we can leave alone.

“Most people feel strongly about FSIS beef, poultry and pork inspections. I don’t see why there’s been such a backlash against letting them inspect catfish.”

 

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