OUR OPINION: Imported catfish inspection cited as issue for US

By NEMS Daily Journal

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s continued questioning of U.S. Department of Agriculture officials about safety inspection of imported catfish is an appropriate caution related to health and to economic fairness for Mississippi’s still-large but stressed commercial catfish farming industry.
Cochran on Thursday pushed the issue in a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the FY2013 budget request for USDA, and the questions were directed at Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Cochran asked Vilsack about the status of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s effort to implement an imported catfish inspection program, required by Congress in 2008, but still not implemented.
Such delays make many citizens wonder how the federal bureaucracy gets anything accomplished.
Cochran, a Republican, has been pushing the USDA for nearly three years to make progress on the inspection process. Regulations for the Food Safety and Inspection Service program were supposed to be released 18 months after enactment of the 2008 Farm Bill, but Vilsack said comments and evaluations are still being made.
It’s fair to ask why.
Cheaper imported fish that don’t meet the same standards as domestic catfish have been stressers on the industry.
“We authorized this program to assure Americans that imported fish is being held to the same standards as domestic catfish and to put our catfish industry on more equal footing with the global competition,” Cochran said in a statement from his Washington office.
His requests are reasonable.
Vilsack said that the USDA is continuing to review comments on a draft regulation, but added that the process has been complicated by the lack of a clear definition from Congress of which variety of catfish should be subject to inspection. OK, that seems reasonable, so let Congress better define the catfish in question, and get on with implementation.
The draft regulation issued in 2011 proposed two definitions for catfish – one a narrow definition and the other a broader classification that incorporates all catfish types, including the Pangasiidae fish commonly farmed in some Southeast Asian countries, Cochran’s statement said. Last year, Cochran supported the broader definition.
Other sources report that moving inspection to USDA, which is the major food safety inspector, makes the State Department nervous.
A slow economy and unresponsive federal bureaucrats make American catfish farmers nervous. The rapid growth of the catfish industry in the 1980s and 1990s led to its becoming one of the most important industries in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. But catfish farm acreage has shrunk because of the economic crunch and, some say, unfair import competition. It’s time to resolve the inspection issue.