According to the budget proposal, reverting to the prior catfish inspectionprogram implemented by the FDA would save an estimated US$2.5 million per annum by eliminating unnecessary and duplicative costs.
“This is just more evidence that anyone looking to cut waste and benefit American Taxpayers, by getting rid of duplicative bloat, recognizes how much of a boondoggle this program has always been.” said Gavin Gibbons of the NFI.
Congress took inspection authority for catfish away from the FDA and gave it to the USDA through provisions in the 2008 and 2014 farm bills.
The shift was viewed as a boon for domestic catfish farmers who have been struggling for years to compete with growing imports from countries like Vietnam, China and Thailand.
Proponents of the switch said the USDA would do a more thorough job of inspecting imports and holding foreign producers to the same identical standards as their US counterparts.
But opponents like Sen. John McCain, Republican-Ariz., have sharply criticized the transfer saying the billions of dollars it cost to move catfish inspection to USDA was an unnecessary burden on taxpayers because FDA could do the job adequately.
McCain led a successful effort to pass a measure in the Senate last year to move inspection back to FDA. The US House of Representatives failed to vote on the measure, despite lawmakers’ claims that they have enough votes to approve it.
One of the core criticisms from McCain and others was the potential for ‘duplicative’ inspections that were likely to occur in facilities that processed both catfish and other seafood that still needed to be inspected by FDA officials.
“Catfish is an extremely low-risk food product,” said Pennsylvania Republican Joseph Pitts, chair of the Health Subcommittee, in his opening remarks at a hearing titled Waste and Duplication in the USDA Catfish Inspection Program.
“Explicitly creating a program exclusively for catfish is unnecessary and directs resources away from high-risk foods to focus on a food that is one of the safest.”
Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican from the catfish-producing state of Mississippi, however is one of the few government officials that defends of the USDA catfish inspection program.
He contends that the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has been successfully blocking hundreds of metric tons of foreign catfish contaminated with illegal antibiotics and other drugs.
Since FSIS began inspecting imported catfish on April 15, 2016 about 156 metric tons of foreign catfish has either been rejected at the border or removed from commerce in the US, according to industry and government officials.
“Overwhelming evidence suggests that imported catfish … represent a significant food safety threat to the American people,” Harper said during the hearing. “Unfortunately, the FDA inspection system was inadequate and it conducted inspections on a mere 0.2% of catfish species.”
Notably, the waste of US taxpayer dollars for the new USDA inspections has been also a problem pointed out in several reports issued by the US Government Accountability Office and it was discussed on many occasions by Steve Morris, a GAO director.
William Jones, FDA deputy director for the Office of Food Safety has also noted numerous times that the catfish inspection was not given to USDA because of any deficiency at FDA.
He highlighted the agency’s targeted approach to inspecting imports, which dedicates more resources to product that comes from the riskiest sources, adding that catfish does not warrant the added scrutiny by the USDA.
The new catfish inspection regime implemented by the USDA will come into full force in Vietnam September 1, 2017.
Exports of catfish from Vietnam to the US are expected to stop at that time— at least until the Vietnam government satisfies that the inspection system in place in the country is substantially the equivalent of that in the US.