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Catfish resolution makes splash in Congress

Catfish resolution makes splash in Congress
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Domestic catfish farmers are trying to stop the House from taking up a resolution that a trade group representing them says would make imported seafood unsafe. 

The resolution, which passed the Senate last month, would shift responsibility for inspections back to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

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A provision in the last two Farm Bills, in 2008 and 2014, turned over the inspections of imported catfish from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the department that was already responsible for inspecting domestic catfish farms. The USDA inspection program got underway in March, and U.S. catfish producers want it to stay in place.

“The House of Representatives has an important responsibility to continue the USDA inspection program of domestic catfish and imported catfish-like products,” said Chad Causey, spokesman for the Catfish Farmers of America, which represents U.S. catfish producers. “These inspections will keep American families safe from harmful toxins readily found in imported products that went previously undetected by the Food and Drug Administration.”

The group points to experts who have said that the FDA-led program was ineffective, only able to inspect roughly 2 percent of all foreign seafood imports, due to staffing problems and other issues. 

Having the USDA conduct inspections “means that for the first time, foreign-bred catfish-like products will be held to the same standards as U.S. home-grown catfish,” Causey added.

But opponents of the USDA’s program argue it duplicates the FDA oversight and at a much higher price.

The National Fisheries Institute — which represents importers, U.S.-based processors and farmers, in addition to seafood restaurants — recently brought on two high-powered lobbying firms to push House lawmakers to take up the resolution sending oversight back to the FDA: Subject Matter, a Democratic lobbying and PR firm, and the Republican lobbying firm Fierce Government Relations.

In addition to its in-house team, the organization also has law and lobby firm Holland & Knight on retainer.

The Catfish Farmers of America has only one firm — Noble Strategies — lobbying on its behalf.

But public affairs firm Rokk Solutions is leading an advertising campaign emphasizing the public health element of having more robust inspections.

The digital ad spots, which will run in Washington, D.C., and other key states, allude to recent reports of imported seafood has led to fish, such as formaldehyde-tainted Chinese tilapia and Vietnamese pangasius, to be sold in U.S. supermarkets. 

The National Fisheries Institute, which counts importers among its members, agues that catfish in particular is a low-risk food.

The group is fighting alongside outside groups — such as the Heritage Foundation, the National Retail Federation,the Retail Industry Leaders Association and Citizens Against Government Waste — and lawmakers who say that the USDA program is too expensive.

Reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) going back to 2011 point to a high cost of implementation of about $14 million per year. 

"The special interest catfish lobby continues to pursue a disingenuous food safety narrative on the Hill that independent experts from places like the FDA and USDA have characterized as fiction. The Government Accountability Office says unequivocally the USDA catfish program hurts food safety, yet the catfish lobby continues to spin tales," said Gavin Gibbons, of the National Fisheries Institute.

He points to a letter signed by 177 House members on Monday urging leadership to take up a vote on the resolution to get rid of the UDSA's catfish inspection program. The letter includes 124 Republicans and 53 Democrats.

"Perhaps they’re sick of hearing about a solution in search of a problem that just happens to financially benefit catfish farmers or they know a thinly disguised earmark when they see one," Gibbons said.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCongress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Biden, lawmakers start down a road with infrastructure MORE (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the Senate resolution to strip the USDA’s power to inspect imported catfish, has said opposition to the measure is driven by members who do not want to compete with low prices of foreign-farmed fish.

"A majority of my colleagues on this side of the aisle who call themselves fiscal conservatives have said, ‘Well, we want to keep this duplicative program,’” McCain said last month.

"That’s fine with me if that’s your view,” he continued. "But then don’t come to the floor and call yourself a fiscal conservative if you’re willing to spend $14 million a year that is not needed and not wanted and is clearly duplicative and is earmarked for a special interest, the catfish industry in Southern states.”

Lisa Weddig, the vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the National Fisheries Institute, says that the argument has never been about keeping the food supply safe.

It “is not about food safety and never has been,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “For years, there has been an ongoing attempt to block imports and thus stifle competition. The food-safety part of the equation is a charade.”

The Catfish Farmers of America calls the $14 million price tag a “myth” and an overestimate by the agency that was trying to grapple with what implementation costs may be. A revised figure, it says, is closer to $1.1 million — only slightly more than the $700,000 that the FDA program cost.

The group also points to reports from earlier this month that a ship carrying Chinese catfish to the United States decided to turn back, rather than undergo inspection by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, as proof of its efficacy.  

Since April, the USDA also stopped an additional shipment of fish from Vietnam that had been tainted with chemicals, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation. 

While it is unclear whether the House will take up the resolution, the Catfish Farmers of America is hoping to woo policymakers and aides during the organization’s annual fly-in and catfish fry this week.

This report was updated at 11:40 a.m.