Chances to conference new farm bill slipping

House wants nutrition bill prior to farm bill conference with Senate. Nutrition bill won't be done before Congress leaves for August recess. Current farm bill extension expires at the end of September. USDA seafood inspection program again in the spotlight.

With each passing day, chances for a new farm bill to be passed prior to current law expiring in late September are withering.

House leadership continues to insist that nutrition program legislation – removed from the farm bill it passed on a party-line vote earlier in July – must be addressed prior to a farm bill conference with the Senate.

At the end of this week, Congress will go into recess for the month of August. That leaves scant time in September for the House to come up with a nutrition bill, conference the farm bill, and then pass what has been agreed to.

And nutrition legislation isn’t the only bottleneck threatening to hold up new farm law. Included in the Senate farm bill and excluded in the House’s, the USDA seafood inspection program is again drawing scrutiny.

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The 2008 farm bill ordered that the USDA take over seafood inspections from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Proponents of the move, including U.S. catfish producers and food safety advocates, wanted the USDA to inspect seafood as it already does beef and pork.

The USDA inspection program, despite opponents’ repeated assertions, would not be duplicative but would replace FDA efforts.  

During a May Senate hearing, Elisabeth Hagen, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, said the department would issue a final rule on the catfish inspection program by Oct. 1. Considering what’s happened with regard to the program since passage of the 2008 farm bill, few will be holding their breath in anticipation.

Ben Pentecost, Mississippi-based producer and president of Catfish Farmers of America, says in the run up to a new farm bill, “There has been a lot of opposition to the USDA taking over the inspections. (Arizona Sen. John) McCain has continued to take up a lot of space in stories about switching inspections from the FDA. Of course, he’s a big supporter of U.S. trade with Vietnam.”

Vietnam, along with China, is a major exporter of catfish to the United States. At the same time, those nations also import large amounts of U.S. agricultural commodities. This has led U.S. farm groups to oppose the USDA seafood inspection program for fear of retaliation through a trade war.

Unfortunately, the fear of a trade war doesn’t change the fact that a minuscule amount of imported seafood is actually inspected by the FDA. Under the FDA regime, an estimated two percent of all imports are checked.

Opponents point out the USDA program has yet to inspect a single fish while spending some $20 million to set up.

Pentecost is unmoved. “They say the FDA program is cost-effective because they only spent $700,000. Well, how much have they inspected? Two percent of seafood imports! And that two percent is a visual inspection, where they check boxes. The testing needed to determine illegal chemicals, contaminants, antibiotics and the like is done on less than a tenth of one percent of imports.”

Among other things, tests run on seafood imports have found toxins and carcinogens.

“For us, this involves trade along with being a food safety issue,” says Pentecost. “We don’t want bad press that might result from any food safety scare generated from imports to also be pinned on (U.S.-raised fish). If there is a safety problem, some consumers may quit eating catfish altogether.”

Losing acres?

Does it frustrate Pentecost that opponents of the USDA inspection program continue to claim it’s duplicative when, in fact, it’s the opposite?

“It does. The USDA program would simply replace the FDA inspections.

“It’s also frustrating that the reports always point out that the USDA has spent X amount without having done any inspections. Well, the USDA hasn’t been authorized to start. The USDA higher-ups haven’t even determined what to inspect yet. They’ve pushed the (2008 farm bill mandate) around for the last seven years so I’m sure they’ve spent money.”

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 Feed prices also continue to dog U.S. aquaculture.

“We switched to cheaper, alternative feeds several years ago. The price of that is higher than we ever dreamed. The price has eased in the last several weeks but we won’t see any real relief until the new grain crops get into the supply chain – maybe late September. By that time, most of our feeding for the year will have already occurred.

“Everyone is looking at the new crop prices on the board and think catfish producers are doing much better. But those prices aren’t reflected in the supply chain, right now.”

The price for catfish currently doesn’t cover the cost of feed, says Pentecost.  But he is optimistic. “We should see some change in feed prices this fall and, hopefully, into 2014.”

Even so, Pentecost expects the catfish industry to lose more acreage this year. “It’s a little early to say for sure, but I expect more shrinkage. I’m sure some farmers have plans to take ponds out of production.

“Around Mississippi, most retired ponds are leveled back down to make more farmland or gone into CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) or WRP (Wetlands Reserve Program).”

Several Mid-South lawmakers continue to champion the USDA inspection program. Among them, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran is most prominent.

In a late July hearing to confirm several USDA nominees, Cochran – the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee – addressed the USDA inspections with Krysta Harden, nominated to be Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Harden’s response wasn’t all that promising for proponents of the program. “It’s a complex issue, as you know very well,” she said. “If I’m confirmed by the Senate, I will work with you for a path forward this year on this issue. I know you’ve waited a long time and I will work with you, sir, if I’m confirmed.”