WASHINGTON, D.C.–Making sure the catfish you eat is safe is what a federal program started in 2008 under the Farm Bill is supposed to do. Now that inspection program could end under new legislation being considered in DC.
The program, which is under the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, is directed at imported catfish. The new legislation, which is part of trade promotion, would eliminate the inspection program.
Both Mississippi senators say there is evidence that government officials directed inspection agencies to not consider cancer risks or exposure to heavy metal, like lead or mercury, when assessing foreign catfish production despite overwhelming evidence of their prevalence in imported products.
“It is past the time to set the record straight about U.S. Department of Agriculture catfish inspection. It has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with the health and safety of American consumers, who are exposed to dangerous chemicals and unapproved drugs in the imported fish they eat,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R). “The FDA oversight program to ensure the safety of imported seafood from residues of unapproved drugs is very limited, especially as compared with the practices of other developed countries. According to the Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 1 percent of all imported seafood products. This is just not acceptable.”
“Efforts to cast the program as a waste of government spending are not based in fact,” said Sen. Roger Wicker. “Once implemented, this non-duplicative program would provide critical safety benefits for consumers in all 50 states. Currently, more than 98 percent of imported catfish – often containing carcinogens, harmful microbials, and heavy metals – are not being inspected before they reach our markets. This program, passed by Congress and signed into law in 2008, would help protect the American people from being exposed to these unacceptable contaminants.”
The following is from a news release from the senators:
As part of their argument, Cochran and Wicker released an excerpt of a draft USDA rule from 2009 that asserted transferring catfish inspection to the USDA from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would result in a reduction of 175,000 lifetime cancers, 95 million exposures to antimicrobials, and 23 million exposures to heavy metal. According to the Government Accountability Office, the White House Office of Management and Budget, however, quashed that rule and directed the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to focus on salmonella risks rather than cancer risks or heavy metal exposures.
Because the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imports and only at U.S. borders, there remains a risk that American consumers are being exposed to the unapproved drugs and chemicals use by producers in developing countries to enhance yields and address diseases associated with overcrowded catfish ponds.
The USDA, on the other hand, inspects 100 percent of the farm-raised protein sources like poultry, pork and beef that are imported into the United States. The FSIS inspection process extends to overseas points of origin to monitor and prevent the importation of products containing substances banned for use by the United States.
While authorizing the FSIS-led inspection program in the 2008 farm bill, Congress used the 2014 farm bill to clarify and differentiate the responsibilities of the FSIS and FDA, creating a clearly separate and non-duplicative inspection regimen for farm-raised catfish.
“The catfish inspection program will enhance consumers’ safety, but it will not result in duplication of activities by U. S. government agencies. Upon publication of final regulations, catfish inspection responsibilities will be transferred to and not shared with the Department of Agriculture. Claims to the contrary are just false,” Cochran concluded.
The Senate is attempting to finalize legislation that would authorize Trade Promotion Authority, a process by which negotiations on international trade agreements can be expedited.
- Pages from a draft USDA inspection rule citing cancer, heavy metal and other risks associated with catfish production in developing nations: http://1.usa.gov/1KiJ3JX
- FSIS List of 36 drugs not approved in the United States but used by foreign fish farmers: http://1.usa.gov/1AkgzvW
- An April 2015 Vietnamese university study that concludes “there is an urgent need to strengthen approval procedures and in particular regularly to monitor the quality of antimicrobials used in Vietnamese aquaculture.” http://1.usa.gov/1JYE6T8