When Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill, one of the provisions in the mammoth legislation required The US Dept. of Agriculture to take over inspection of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration. While there’s been plenty of criticism of food inspection in the United States for many years, one of the biggest sticking points has been how inspection of various food products has been div-vied up among various government inspection agencies.

And while there’s been support for ending this inspection confusion, by creating one super-size food inspection agency to make sure all products are safe to eat, inspection for the most part has been divided between USDA, FDA and state inspection agencies. USDA inspects meat, poultry and some egg products; states conduct state meat and poultry inspection programs; and FDA inspects seafood and most remaining food products.

So why did Congress decide to take one species of seafood – catfish – and transfer it from infrequent inspection by FDA, to con-tinuous inspection by USDA? Why is one, and only one, species of fish going to be looked at by the federal government’s meat in-spection agency?

The answer to this question is: Washington politics.

And the proposed USDA rulemaking last month for FSIS catfish inspection will actually delay this inspection, expedite it. The American catfish industry has actually been trying for quite a while to get its product declared as an amenable species by USDA, so such inspection could begin. But in the eyes of foreign catfish producers, USDA inspection is trade protection, to protect American catfish from an invasion of catfish from overseas.

In fact, the USDA regulations for inspection of both American and non-American catfish were supposed to be released back in March, 2010. So what Obama Administration officials are saying behind Washington’s closed doors is that the long delay in rule-making took place because of concern about American trade with Vietnam. That country’s exports of seafood should total about $5 billion this year. Even though USDA rulemaking is under way, don’t expect final regulations anytime soon. USDA will be accepting comments through the end of June about the proposed rules for an inspection program to be implemented in the future – who knows when? The proposed rules allow a “delay” or “transition” period for American and foreign catfish producers. But the over-seas producers believe inspection overseas for export to the United States will take a very long time to set up and get underway.

Import war
Back in 2009, there was an intense lobbying campaign between American catfish producers and catfish importers, especially those bringing in catfish from Vietnam. This fight centered on whether Vietnamese catfish poses a health risk to Americans. And that’s why the American producers spent millions convincing Congress, as part of its 2008 Farm Bill, to tighten regulation of this single type fish, moving from the light seafood regulation of FDA, to the heavy-handed regulation of FSIS. All other fish remain under the lighter-weight FDA inspection. The battle has resulted in threats of a trade war from Vietnam, which wants its catfish excluded from the regulations. Domestic producers countercharge tougher regulation, which would increase regulation and on-site inspection in Vietnam and force overseas producers to carry out the same standards of safety that American producers do.

The battle over catfish safety actually dates back to 2002, when the previous Farm Bill was passed containing a stipulation pre-venting Vietnamese fish producers from labeling their catfish as “catfish.” Vietnamese and American catfish come from two different catfish “families,” although the former president of the Catfish Institute representing American producers made a comment the two types of fish are as close to each other as a house cat and a cow. Something that didn’t help American producers had occurred by 2008, when it was time for Congress to enact another Farm Bill. Sales of catfish from the domestic family were down, while Viet-namese catfish sales in the US had risen. That’s when American producers decided better inspection was needed, including that of the Vietnamese fish.

So Senator Thad Cochran (R- Miss.), whose state is the center of the American catfish industry, and who serves on the Senate Ag-riculture Committee, inserted language in the 2008 Farm Bill to set up an inspection program, and included a $16 million earmark. The proposed rules even offer two definitions of catfish – one which includes only the domestic variety, and a second, which would include catfish families raised in Southeast Asia. “The open question of defining catfish is the lynchpin that could decide whether catfish farmers in Mississippi and in other states will be able to compete,” Cochran said.

Public meetings are expected to be held during the public comment period. No matter what kind of regulation is adopted, one other important factor stands out: The Obama Administration’s proposed budget for 2011-2012 requested no money to fund catfish inspection.