catfish pond

USDA catfish inspections to be scuttled?

A strong case for USDA catfish inspections. Arkansas lawmaker warns of more attacks on farm bill programs.

While House Republican leadership has yet to announce if it will allow a vote on the matter, plenty of lawmakers want to take out the fledgling USDA FSIS’ (Food Safety and Inspection Service) catfish inspection program. Opponents claim the FSIS program -- in force for only several months and not to be fully implemented until 2017 -- is costly and duplicative of the FDA’s seafood inspection program.

And it isn’t just in the House that the program is under attack. In May, largely led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Senate passed legislation that would stop the FSIS inspections. The action spurred the House to take up the matter and in June a bipartisan letter to House leaders urging a vote to block the inspections had the signatures of 180 lawmakers.

Now, proponents of the FSIS inspections are warning the legislative procedures being used to take out the inspections put all farm bill programs in jeopardy.

They also point to the fact that only several weeks into FSIS inspections, two shipments of adulterated Vietnamese catfish were rejected. Two more shipments from China never made it to the inspections. Rather than face inspections, the shipments turned around and headed home.

In late June, Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford spoke to Delta Farm Press about the situation just prior to traveling to Cuba on a goodwill trip with a medical group. Among his comments:

On the Congressional Review Act (CRA) being used in the inspection fight…

“Those of us in affected states are working to prevent this action from taking place. The Senate essentially invoked the Congressional Review Act in order to get (its catfish inspection legislation passed). I have an issue with that because the CRA isn’t to be used to change existing law. It’s basically used to clarify or refine the intentions of Congress on a piece of legislation and rule promulgation. It isn’t to undo existing statutes.

“The USDA FSIS Catfish Inspection Program is existing law, it’s in effect. It isn’t proposed, the final rule has been published, it’s working and it’s doing a good job in protecting American consumers from adulterated catfish.

“So, I have concerns about using the CRA in this context.

“Bottom line is FSIS is doing 100 percent inspections and have already caught adulterated products that otherwise would have entered our food system.”

On ‘bad numbers’ being used by opponents…

FSIS inspection opponents “also cite some bad numbers. This goes back to the 2008 farm bill and the argument was used again in the 2014 farm bill. The GAO was projecting the transition to (the FSIS inspection program) would cost $14 million a year. In fact, that was way, way overstated. After final rule publishing and implementation, the USDA forecasts it will cost $1.1 million a year. That’s way under what the GAO projected years ago.

“Yes, it does cost more than the FDA protocol. However, those arguing the (USDA program) is duplicative and redundant aren’t also citing the fact that the FDA had a 2 percent inspection rate. Also, the FDA used NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) as part of a two-pronged approach to the inspection process and neither was doing a good job.

“Want to talk about ‘duplicative?’ Why is NOAA part of the catfish inspection program under FDA? That seems to me to be unnecessary.

“We should by all means keep the FSIS program. If you want to talk dollars and cents, it makes more sense to spend an additional $350,000 annually in order to achieve 98 percent greater inspection efficiency.”

Letters

On a mid-June letter sent by state agriculture commissioners to House leadership urging the FSIS program be allowed to continue…

“At least 13 signed the letter. Obviously, you’d expect the four primary states to sign on: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But the fact that more states outside the region want the program to remain is pretty telling.

“(Mississippi Rep.) Trent Kelly made an important observation last week. All agriculture is regional in nature but is national, even global, in the sense that we feed everybody. So, there are parts of the country known for certain commodities: Washington apples, Georgia peaches, Wisconsin dairy. Those states have a kind of brand equity or identity with a given commodity.

“So, while this inspection issue may overly affect four states where the catfish industry is concentrated, it’s a broader issue as we’re all part of the food chain – whether in the production part or the consumption part. We need to make sure people understand that we’re doing all we can to ensure food safety.”

Would the loads of foreign fish already rejected by FSIS have been caught by the FDA?

“All you can do is go by what the FDA has done historically. And historically they’ve done a poor job. If they’re inspecting only 2 percent of the catfish entering the U.S. market, you can surmise that the two shipment caught (by FSIS) would have escaped scrutiny. That’s based on the extreme inefficiency of the FDA’s inspections.

“Would the FDA have caught these shipments? I don’t know. But the old saying is ‘past is prologue’ and if we’re basing things on past performance it’s likely they wouldn’t have been caught. And given that history there’s no telling how much adulterated has entered the U.S. system over the years.

“The fact that USDA caught more (illegal imported catfish) in two weeks than FDA did in two years? That’s a good indication they weren’t doing their job and were exposing U.S. consumers to cancer-causing carcinogens.

“I’d also say that the American Cancer Society supports the USDA inspections for those reasons. We’re not talking about intercepting (imported catfish to prevent) a salmonella outbreak or an E. coli outbreak that has immediate impact. That is important, absolutely. But what isn’t being talked about is prolonged exposure to carcinogens – like those found in these Vietnamese shipments – cause cancer and are illegal here in the United States.

“So why expose Americans to that potential? You’d do that over $300,000 annually? The USDA inspection program, on a per inspection basis, is a much better value. It’s vastly more affordable and a much better value proposition to the American consumer.”

More CRA worries

On lawmakers doing the bidding of import lobbyists…

“I can tell you that the grass-roots efforts (import advocates) have organized and the type of support they’ve gotten isn’t free. And for them to be able to mobilize to the extent they have, (a cost of $1 million) I think is grossly understated. 

“We marked up the farm bill twice on this and, on both occasions, groups spent a bunch of money to try and scuttle the USDA program, which was authorized in 2008. They came up short on both efforts and now they’re at it again.

“Over the course of the last six years, I suspect they’ve spent considerably more than ($1 million) trying to derail the USDA program. I don’t know which groups in particular but I’ve been around long enough to know these efforts don’t come cheap. There’s a lot of money being spent to try and sway this in their favor.”

More on procedural concerns in Congress…

“Again, you have to look at this in the context of procedure. Invoking the CRA in this regard is a dangerous, dangerous precedent. I want to make sure the CRA is being used appropriately and, in this instance, it isn’t being used appropriately.

“If we go forward with this, we’re likely to see the CRA lose its validity. It could be used by groups willy-nilly to try and undo existing law. That isn’t what the CRA is for.

“I think cooler heads will prevail. Don’t like the law? Well, you have an opportunity to change the law in the next farm bill authorization. And if this (USDA program) is so egregious, go ahead and introduce legislation.

“The problem you’ll have, quite frankly, is if this is done before the next farm bill authorization, it just opens up the farm bill. Do that and every farm bill program is imperiled, particularly crop insurance. Crop insurance is the next stop for anti-farm groups like EWG. They’d love to see (the USDA inspection program removed) because that would provide a (toe-hold) to exploit and potentially attack crop insurance.

“Everyone involved in agriculture should have maintaining the integrity of the farm bill in common if for no other reason than we want to protect existing law, strengthen it, and not expose it to perils EWG and other groups would inflict.”

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