by Marion Nestle
Nov 26 2013

The hooks and lines of the farm bill: Catfish inspection

As I am endlessly complaining, the farm bill is so detailed, complicated, and opaque that no rational person can possibly understand it, let alone a member of Congress.

To wit: catfish inspection.

As Gail Collins noted in her New York Times column a week or so ago, some members of the House want the USDA to inspect catfish, not the FDA (which ordinarily is responsible for fish inspection).  The current FDA inspection office costs $700,000 per year.  The USDA office, established by the 2008 farm bill, costs about $14 million a year, even though the USDA has not gotten around to issuing rules or actually inspecting catfish.

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

The House version of the farm bill calls for repeal of USDA catfish inspection as a cost-cutting measure (the Senate farm bill does not mention catfish inspection, which means it leaves the USDA office in place).

Thad Cochran, Republican Senator from Mississippi, wants the House to delete the repeal provision, keep USDA in charge, and, thereby, protect the Mississippi catfish industry from foreign catfish imports.

Politico Pro quotes a member of Cochran’s staff:

Sen. Cochran has made it clear that his priority is to complete the new farm bill and get it signed into law. It sounds like there are some who have a deep under-appreciation of the diversity of Mississippi’s agriculture industry and the importance of this bill to the state’s farmers, foresters, hunters, and those in need of nutrition assistance.

The New York Times also points out that although some watchdog consumer groups support tougher safety standards for catfish (because of lower foreign standards for antibiotics and other chemicals), a Government Accountability Office report in May 2012 called imported catfish a low-risk food and said an inspection program at the Agriculture Department would “not enhance the safety of catfish.”

Now, says the Times in another article, a coalition of budget watchdog groups and a seafood trade group are lobbying to repeal the USDA’s inspection program.

All of this is in the House version of the farm bill, but unless you are a lobbyist for the catfish industry, you would never know it from the bill itself.  Here’s the relevant section from the  House bill.

catfish

As Gail Collins puts it,

See, this is what I like about the farm bill. The agriculture parts harken back to the golden era when Republicans and Democrats could work together to promote stupid ideas that benefited the special interests in their districts. And then go out and get inebriated in bipartisan drinking sessions. Now everybody is in the gym and then shutting down the government.

  • Kate

    So, aren’t there 534 other Representatives and Senators? Are we so broken that one man from Mississippi gets to decide what goes in the Farm Bill that impacts us all? How about some of the others standing up? LA Times did piece about Rep. Roybal-Allard at least doing something about this foolishness — and she was even working with a Republican woman (Rep. Hartzler). Maybe it does take women to decide food issues!

    http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-congress-catfish-20131124,0,6996252.story#axzz2lgLiRrny

  • BrookeD1717

    Wow, just when you think Congress can’t get any shadier you
    realize they’re able to insert language into bills that their own colleagues can’t even decipher… until it’s too late and a program exists that wastes millions of taxpayer dollars – all to benefit one small special interest! Ridiculous. At least there’s an effort to get rid of it… if they can’t ax something this dumb in the Farm Bill, we really are doomed.

  • Maggie

    Marion-love your mix of food and politics. But have you ever written about anything a s weird as this catfish boondoggle. Good to know someone’s looking over the shoulders of Congress and food safety agencies. True that catfish is low-risk food and yet we need both USDA and FDA looking after it? Wouldn’t that be better spent on food assistance support rather than subsidizing an already rich catfish farmer?

  • Geof

    Wow — WHAT a waste. Here our country is constantly talking
    budgets and deficits yet our very own in Congress create programs like this that screw the rest of us to benefit their own special interests? Madness.Thanks for writing on this Marion. I wonder how many other programs there are like this in the food supply alone. Hopefully reports from people like you calling out this absurdity for what it is will put pressure on RESPONSIBLE
    members in Congress (do those exists?) to push for repeal of this BS no matter what.

  • Rose Martinez

    How do you feel about the issue?

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