Senate to put bigger fish aside, fry catfish inspection program

The Senate is likely to vote to end a small but controversial catfish inspection program next week, saving $14 million annually and potentially preventing a trade war with Vietnam.

While other major cost-cutting amendments to the 2013 farm bill face an uphill climb — including ones slashing food stamp spending and capping crop insurances subsidies for wealthy farmers — the elimination of the catfish program is expected to draw wide bipartisan support.  

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced an amendment to the farm bill to do away with the inspections. McCain and other senators, including John Kerry (D-Mass.), argue the program is duplicative and could provoke a trade dispute with Vietnam.

“We are predicting victory on the floor, we clearly have the momentum and should have the votes, too,” a lobbyist supporting the amendment said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is required to set up a catfish inspection program under the 2008 farm bill, and has been dragging its feet in putting the program into place. Normally, UDSA inspects meat and eggs, but leaves fish to the Food and Drug Administration.

The USDA estimates that the new program would cost $14 million a year to run, compared to the $700,000 currently spent by the Food and Drug Administration.

A new Government Accountability Report compiled in May urged Congress to eliminate the program. It argues that FDA will have sufficient powers under new legislation to inspect imported fish properly.

Supporters of the program say imported catfish are a salmonella risk that the FDA’s program does not sufficiently address. Catfish Farmers of America argues that since only 2 percent of fish are actually inspected by FDA, keeping catfish under the agency’s oversight is a threat to public health.

Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) want the USDA program put in place.

Opponents say that the real reason for the USDA program is to protect the domestic catfish industry from competition with Vietnam and China. They say there is insufficient evidence of salmonella risk, and that under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules the program would constitute an unfair trade barrier. The WTO could allow Vietnam to retaliate if a WTO panel determines that is the case. 

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), head of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees trade, has warned Vietnam might retaliate against U.S. beef exports over the inspections.

In the Agriculture Committee, supporters of the domestic catfish industry were able to beat back an attempt to end the USDA program.

With the USDA aiming to implement its program in 2013, both sides of the issue see the 2012 farm bill as key to resolving the catfish dispute.

The farm bill faces at least 80 possible amendments next week, and battles over the legislation could stretch on through June.

The House Agriculture Committee might mark up its own farm bill this month with less generous crop insurance and deeper cuts to food stamps. Due to opposition by fiscal conservative opposed in principle to farm subsidies, the House might not move a farm bill to the floor before the current one expires Sept. 30.


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