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By Casey Wooten
June 15 — Lawmakers are digging in over who will oversee inspection of catfish imports, as a measure that would roll back Agriculture Department oversight awaits action in the House.
In a letter made public June 15, more than 150 members urged Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others to bring the Senate-passed resolution (S.J. Res. 28) up for a vote before Congress leaves for its August recess. The joint resolution of disapproval, passed 55-43 in May, would move inspection from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service back to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA oversaw the inspection process until March, when a provision, passed as part of the 2014 farm bill, took effect and transitioned oversight (See previous story, 05/26/16).
In the letter, the bipartisan group of lawmakers said USDA inspection was too expensive and unnecessary.
“The Government Accountability Office has 10 times stated that this program is ‘duplicative' and at ‘high-risk' for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement,” the letter said.
The resolution is part of a years-long fight over catfish inspection. Congress passed provisions moving oversight to the USDA in both the 2008 and 2014 farm bills, and deficit hawks have squared off with lawmakers from Southern states—where most U.S. catfish farms are located—ever since.
Opponents of USDA inspection say the program is too costly and amounts to protectionism for U.S. catfish farmers. Members backing USDA oversight sent their own letter to House leadership in May, saying tougher standards are necessary while citing recent incidents in which the USDA found contaminants in catfish imported from Asia.
“I think that the House has better things to do,” Ben Noble, spokesman for Catfish Farmers of America, told Bloomberg BNA. “It's a bit frustrating that we are even having to focus on this as much as we are. There are more important matters than trying to resurrect a debate that's already been settled multiple times by Congress.”
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.)—who is spearheading the resolution in the House—introduced legislation in 2013 alongside Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have stricken the catfish inspection language from the farm bill, but neither measure advanced.
If the House passes the current resolution, it would move to the president's desk. While the White House has yet to weigh in on S.J. Res. 28, it did include a similar provision in its 2014 budget, raising the likelihood President Barack Obama would sign the measure.
Spokesmen for Ryan haven't said whether they would take up the resolution.
Opponents of the resolution range from lawmakers representing states with a large catfish farming sectors to environmental groups pushing for tougher food safety standards.
The Safe Food Coalition, a group of consumer advocacy organizations such as Food & Water Watch and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, sent their own letter to House leadership June 15 urging them not to hold a vote on the resolution.
“Starkly different catfish farming practices in foreign countries, often accompanied by inadequate environmental and food safety standards, raise significant public health concerns,” the letter said. “The FDA regulation of catfish did not sufficiently address those concerns.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), whose state is a major supplier of farm-raised catfish, took to the Senate floor in May to defend USDA inspections, saying that it was not redundant since the FDA stopped inspecting catfish imports.
Other lawmakers have different concerns about the resolution. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who voted against the resolution, has said he is concerned the resolution would open up a Pandora's box of further changes to the 2014 farm bill.
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