Catfish inspection program plays politics with food safety

First, some history. Catfish, like all fish, is FDA regulated. FDA Seafood Hazardous Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulations hold seafood importers responsible for the seafood safety controls performed by their overseas suppliers the same way they hold domestic producers responsible. The FDA and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention consider catfish a low-risk product. There have been no reports of catfish related salmonella illnesses in the last 14 years.
 
Despite the fact that the inspection of catfish, as well as the inspection of other riskier fish products, is working quite well, some in Congress passed legislation to move catfish monitoring to the USDA. If the plan goes forward, businesses that process multiple species would see regulatory oversight from both the FDA and the USDA.  Since the USDA has yet to develop a regulatory strategy, the results will be turmoil for seafood purveyors -- nonsensical redundancy over the inspection of a “low risk” product.
 
The new duplicate rules will not come cheap. The Government Accountability Office puts the price tab at $30 million just to get USDA up and running.  It has identified the program as wasteful and recommends that it be scrapped.
 
The inspiration for this rush to spend $30 million (to start) of hard earned taxpayer dollars on a non-existent problem is a group of lobbyists and a trade association representing elements of the American catfish producers. This group has bullied Congress into moving catfish regulation to the USDA, making it harder for their foreign competitors to enter the US market. This move is a win for US catfish producers, but ultimately, a loss for American taxpayers and consumers.    
 
The catfish program is so ridiculous it has attracted a coalition of unlikely allies in opposition to it, including Senators Tom Coburn, John Kerry, John McCain, Bill Nelson and Jeanne Shaheen. As the USDA inches closer to catfish inspection, it is time for more members of Congress to speak up. As Senators McCain and Coburn made clear when they introduced legislation to prevent the expansion of catfish inspections, this regulation is “nothing more than a protectionist tactic funded at taxpayers’ expense.”
 
There is no room for politics in food safety. If the public was better protected by moving catfish to USDA, I would be the first person to speak up. Science makes clear that Americans are safe from catfish. Whether they are safe from politicians looking to use tax dollars for pet projects remains in question.
 
Bryon Truglio is the retired chief of the FDA’s Seafood Processing and Technology Policy Branch.