A bipartisan congressional group mostly representing the Gulf states, but also including food safety advocate Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), has asked the House leadership not to take up the recently passed Senate resolution which would end the nation’s only catfish inspection program.
“The Senate recently passed S.J. Res. 28, a Congressional Review Act resolution which overturns the USDA Catfish Inspection rule mandated by the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills,” the 21-member group stated in a letter sent Thursday to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA. “We write to request the House not to take up S.J. Res. 28.”
“The merits of the catfish inspection program have been debated at length in Congress during the deliberations of the last two Farms Bills,” they continued. “Overwhelming evidence suggests that imported catfish and catfish-like products represent a significant food safety threat to the American public, and accordingly Congress transferred inspection authority from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).”
They point out that FDA was inspecting just 0.2 percent of imported catfish species and that Congress opted to apply the same standards to farm-raised catfish that are applied to other farm-raised meats, including foreign beef, pork, and poultry already inspected by USDA.
In suggesting the House toss out the Senate resolution rather than vote on it, the group noted that Senate opponents made arguments that were “misguided and unfounded.” They said the cost of the USDA catfish inspection program is just $1.1 million annually, which they called “a small price to pay to protect the food supply.”
They told the House leadership that duplication is no longer an issue because FDA has transferred all catfish inspection to USDA as was called for in the past two Farm Bills.
“Finally, the rule simply requires foreign suppliers to meet an equivalent safety standard as our domestic producers, a policy that allows all market participants to compete on a level playing field,” they added.
The May 25 Senate vote to kill USDA catfish inspection passed 55-43 after the annual costs of the program were depicted as running $14 million a year, far more than the $1.1 million cited by the House group in its letter.
USDA’s inspection program for Siluriformes fish, including catfish, got underway March 1 after years of dispute. It immediately approved 45 establishments located in Vietnam for importation to the U.S. Approval is based on documentation submitted by Vietnam showing its authorities “regulate the growing and processing of Siluriformes fish for human food,” and that they will ensure compliance.
Further documentation from countries such as Vietnam will be required by the time an 18-month transitional period ends on Sept. 1, 2017. Additional establishments located in Vietnam are expected to be approved for export during the transition period.
One issue concerning catfish importers, however, is USDA’s “equivalency’ process for determining if a foreign country has a food safety system comparable to the U.S. Catfish importers and their retail customers fear that imports to the U.S. will eventually be blocked from any country targeted for an equivalency review.
However, USDA does equivalency reviews for meat, poultry and eggs all the time without blocking a country’s imports while the review is underway.
Other reaction to the Senate action broke along foreign and domestic lines, especially when it comes to seafood. John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, said that getting USDA out of catfish inspection would “save taxpayers’ money, eliminate duplicative regulations for small businesses, ensure markets remain open for American farmers, and retain seafood safety expertise where it has existed for more than 50 years, the Food and Drug Administration.”
NFI represents the interests of seafood importers to the U.S. and has led efforts to kill USDA catfish inspection. Meanwhile, the American Shrimp Processors Association, representing domestic shrimpers, blasted the Senate’s action.
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