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Congress considers spending $170 million inspecting catfish

In this June 9, 2016 photograph, Simmons Catfish employees seine catfish from a pond at a Simmons Catfish farm near Yazoo City, Miss. Simmons Catfish is one of the largest catfish processing plants and farms in Mississippi. The state's catfish farmers, which produce over half of U.S. farm-raised catfish, labor daily under strict safety inspection laws while fighting to make sure their industry rivals in Asia are held up to the same standards. (Eli Baylis/The Clarion-Ledger, via AP)

(Eli Baylis/The Clarion-Ledger, via AP)

Congress is reeling over a catfish inspection program that costs American taxpayers almost $200 million over a decade.

The United States Department of Agriculture announced new catfish inspection standards in December 2015, but the Senate voted to block the USDA from inspecting catfish by a 55-to-43 vote May 25. Since then, the House has debated the program.

The factions have split between one that sees the inspections as necessary for safety and another that sees it as a waste of time and money performing a function other government agencies do.

The agency’s catfish inspection standards included labeling standards for defining catfish, listing the country of origin, and including safe-handling instructions for consumers. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can overturn controversial regulations from the Obama administration with a simple majority.

Gulf Coast lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have pushed to keep catfish inspections under the jurisdiction of the USDA as catfish production is a major industry in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. They say that USDA inspections will protect the American catfish industry from competition with Vietnamese imports, and will hopefully prevent carcinogens and resistant antibiotics from getting into the nation’s food source, according to The Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, LA.

“Our challenge is two-fold. One is economic. We have to make sure that the industry continues to prosper, but also we need to make sure that the product continues to be safe,” Rep. Bernie Thompson (D-MS) said.

Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Republican from Louisiana who is also a physician, emphasized the need for the USDA’s catfish inspection standards purely for food safety purposes.

“Food safety is national security and we need inspections on every shipment that is coming into this country along with shipments within this country,” Abraham said. “So I can’t stress from the physician point of view how important inspections from the USDA are.”

While advocates for the USDA’s catfish inspection program talk about the benefits of the program from both an economic and public health standpoint, opponents of the catfish inspection program say that the program is extremely costly, and the USDA is duplicating FDA inspections.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that the program will cost taxpayers $14 million a year, and budget experts estimate that repealing the USDA’s catfish program would save up to $170 million for taxpayers over the next decade.

According to The Hill, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is leading the charge against USDA catfish inspections and reverting them back to the FDA.

“A majority of my colleagues on this side of the aisle who call themselves fiscal conservatives have said, ‘Well, we want to keep this duplicative program.’ That’s fine with me if that’s your view. But then don’t come to the floor and call yourself a fiscal conservative if you’re willing to spend $14 million a year that is not needed and not wanted and is clearly duplicative and is earmarked for a special interest, the catfish industry in southern states,” McCain said.

“The USDA catfish program is a prime example of duplicative government regulation. The program adds unnecessary burdens to companies, wastes tax payer dollars, and does not enhance the safety of the U.S. catfish supply,” the Committee of Energy and Commerce wrote to House leaders in a request to repeal the USDA’s catfish inspection program.

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