When is legislation that is supposed to be final, not? Apparently when it’s a provision of the 2008 farm bill that was designed to provide for a stronger catfish inspection program to be conducted by USDA.
Mississippi’s U.S. senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, found themselves having to defend the program that Cochran had included in the 2008 farm bill - once again - during the debate over legislation giving President Obama trade promotion authority.
An amendment offered to the trade promotion authority bill would have terminated the USDA catfish inspected program, which has long been sought by the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry. The amendment was declared non-germane and set aside during the debate leading up to Senate passage of the TPA bill on Friday (May 22).
“It is past the time to set the record straight about U.S. Department of Agriculture catfish inspection,” said Cochran. “It has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with the health and safety of American consumers, who are exposed to dangerous chemicals and unapproved drugs in the imported fish they eat.”
Cochran, Wicker and catfish industry leaders have long maintained the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight program to ensure the safety of imported seafood from residues of unapproved drugs is not effective. According to USDA and other federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 1 percent of all imported seafood products.
'Not based in fact'
“Efforts to cast the program as a waste of government spending are not based in fact,” said Wicker. “Once implemented, this non-duplicative program would provide critical safety benefits for consumers in all 50 states.
“Currently, more than 98 percent of imported catfish – often containing carcinogens, harmful microbials, and heavy metals – are not being inspected before they reach our markets. This program, passed by Congress and signed into law in 2008, would help protect the American people from being exposed to these unacceptable contaminants.”
As part of their argument, Cochran and Wicker released an excerpt of a draft USDA rule from 2009 that asserted transferring catfish inspection to the USDA from FDA would result in a reduction of 175,000 lifetime cancers, 95 million exposures to antimicrobials, and 23 million exposures to heavy metal.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the White House Office of Management and Budget, however, quashed that rule and directed the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to focus on salmonella risks rather than cancer risks or heavy metal exposures.
Because the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imports and only at U.S. borders, there remains a risk that American consumers are being exposed to the unapproved drugs and chemicals use by producers in developing countries to enhance yields and address diseases associated with overcrowded catfish ponds, the Mississippi senators said.
USDA, on the other hand, inspects 100 percent of the farm-raised protein sources like poultry, pork and beef that are imported into the United States. The FSIS inspection process extends to overseas points of origin to monitor and prevent the importation of products containing substances banned for use by the United States.
After authorizing the FSIS-led inspection program in the 2008 farm bill, Congress used the 2014 farm bill to clarify and differentiate the responsibilities of the FSIS and FDA, creating a clearly separate and non-duplicative inspection regimen for farm-raised catfish.
To make his point, Cochran on Wednesday emphasized an April 30, 2014, memorandum of understanding, signed between the Food and Drug Administration and USDA that adheres to a 2014 farm bill directive for the agencies to clarify and differentiate their new inspection responsibilities.
“The facts couldn’t be any plainer. There will be no duplication of effort, no matter how many times that falsehood is repeated by the defenders of the existing minimal U.S. standards for certifying the safety of catfish imports,” Cochran said. “Claims to the contrary are just false.”
The Senate is attempting to finalize legislation that would authorize Trade Promotion Authority, a process by which negotiations on international trade agreements can be expedited.
For more information on USDA findings on imported catfish products, see http://1.usa.gov/1KiJ3JX