Farm Bill's catfish inspection program is a fishy proposition

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably never heard of the catfish inspection program, but it’s shaping up as a controversial flash point in this year’s debate. At a cost of some $30 million just to get the catfish inspection program up and running, it stands as a case study in why our agriculture policy desperately needs reform.

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Here’s the background: In 2008, large catfish processors lobbied Congress to have inspections of imported catfish shifted from the Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The domestic catfish producers hoped that by tightening import restrictions, they wouldn’t have to compete against catfish competitors from Vietnam and other countries.

Four years later, the problems with this approach are clear. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the watchdog arm of Congress, listed the catfish inspection program in a February 2011 report as one of numerous duplicative programs that are undermining food safety due to “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources.” The GAO argued that food inspection programs should be consolidated, rather than fragmented, for greater effectiveness.

Moreover, the justification for different inspections was always shaky. Advocates for catfish inspections suggested the imported fish products were grown with unsafe antibiotics and other substances and posed a potential health threat to U.S. consumers. Yet no scientific evidence of this health threat has ever been supplied—only vague insinuations and scare tactics that the foreign products are somehow “unsafe.”

And it gets worse: the inspection program is also an affront to the free market we should be striving to create for agricultural trade. Trade experts argue that shifting jurisdiction to USDA for catfish imports will aggravate tensions with trading partners like China and Vietnam, both of which are key export markets for other larger U.S. agricultural products like soybeans, pork, milk, rice and poultry.

A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted the catfish inspection program, calling it “protectionism at its worse.” If you value open trade as a mechanism for economic growth and peaceful international relations, it’s hard to disagree. For members of Congress who represent catfish producers in these various states, it may be good politics—but for the rest of us it’s bad business.

With a national debt approaching $16 trillion and a projected budget deficit this year of $1.2 trillion, you could argue that a $30 million inspection program is relatively insignificant. Indeed, it’s alarming that  $30 million is now considered “insignificant,” but that’s the perverse reality of our out-of-control federal budget. And the inspection program isn’t even particularly large or important within the context of the 2008 farm bill, which ran more than 1,700 pages in length.

But the catfish inspection program is Exhibit A in when it comes to making the case that our nation’s agriculture policy is profoundly broken. Farm Bill supporters will attempt to paint critics as “anti-farm,” but that’s a stretch. Believe me, I have tremendous respect for farmers. I know how hard most of them work for a living, having myself grown up working on a farm in Tillman County, Oklahoma.

What’s clear is that federal farm policy—which began with the best intentions to serve as a safety net program for farmers and to ensure a safe, abundant supply of food for the nation—is now held captive by special interests fighting to game the system. The catfish inspection program is just one example of this reality.

Given the nation’s debt and deficit picture, Congress should take this opportunity to return the 2012 Farm Bill to its original roots of a modest safety net to protect agriculture, instead of a treasure chest for organized lobbies. Reining in special interest giveaways and runaway agriculture spending today will help ensure we can fund a sensible farm policy in the future, and that’s a worthy goal.

Hamel is executive director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well-being.