BILL MINOR: Don’t blame it just on the lowly catfish

BILL MINOR

BILL MINOR

Catfish, once the butt of jokes until becoming a highly profitable farm crop – even rivaling King Cotton in Mississippi – has innocently created a congressional hang-up in the must-pass farm bill while also making a sticking point in an international trade pact.

It happens that Mississippi is the biggest producer of farm-raised catfish in the U.S. And it also happens that the state’s senior senator, Thad Cochran, longtime Republican leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is the leading advocate for the catfish industry.

So, what’s the problem? Well, it happens there are duplicate catfish inspection agencies in the Senate version of the stymied multi-billion dollar farm bill.

The Food and Drug Administration has been doing imported catfish inspections, but Cochran and his catfish cohorts want to fund an inspection agency in the Department of Agriculture which they say that will make stiffer inspections of imported catfish.

The FDA has been doing the job for one-fifth the cost USDA plans to charge. Some Congressional budget hawks, among them Cochran’s fellow Republican, John McCain, say this is the kind of deal that makes Americans cynical about government.

Plus Asian countries, principally Vietnam which is the largest exporter of catfish, are raising a howl that the more rigorous USDA inspections are an attempt to scuttle the Pacific Trade Pact. They say tightening inspections could be countered by trade retaliation against U.S. exports of beef, soybeans and other goods.

Mississippi catfish producers argue that the FDA is understaffed and makes little inspection of imported catfish. One catfish industry executive, Dick Stevens of Isola said in an interview that “fish from other countries have been found to have drugs in them.”

Meantime production of farm-raised catfish in Mississippi, while still leading nationally, has dropped substantially in recent years largely because of the increase in feed prices but partly from the inroads of imported fish, even from China. State agricultural authorities estimate catfish production is down some 50 per cent from its peak a decade ago. In 2005, Mississippi produced a record 350 million pounds.

What weakens Cochran’s pro-catfish position is that the House already has passed its version of the five-year farm bill which does not contain authorization for the USDA inspection catfish agency. Though the catfish inspection issue is a stumbling block to passage of a new farm bill, major national interest is focused on the draconian cut in food stamp funding made by the House in its version of the bill. The House would slash $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next 10 years, taking food off the table for millions of low-income and unemployed Americans. The Senate version would cut food stamp funding by $4.9 billion over 10 years. Formal nomenclature for the program is SNAP, standing for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In Mississippi alone, 664,000 people have been getting food stamps, an equivalent of one-fifth of the state’s population.

In the past, when the five-year farm bill has come up in Congress, bipartisan cooperation has guaranteed its passage without any major hitch. But the days of bipartisan cooperation seem a relic of an ancient past. Reality is that if Congress fails to enact a new farm bill by years-end, the nation’s agricultural sector will revert to Depression-era days when farm subsidizes and crop insurance didn’t exist.

Just don’t blame it on the lowly catfish.

Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.