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Nolan: USDA catfish inspection program wastes money

Rep. Rick Nolan smells something fishy in an obscure provision of the farm bill.

The wide-ranging legislation, which authorizes food stamps, provides crop insurance for farmers and sets agriculture policy, includes a US Department of Agriculture catfish inspection program that Wadena's congressman, a House Agriculture Committee member, said is a "shameful, duplicative waste of taxpayer dollars."

The program, established in the 2008 farm bill, hasn't inspected a single catfish. That's remained the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, which is tasked with ensuring the safety of all forms of seafood. Nolan said the FDA does a fine job with inspections, adding the USDA program would cost $170 million dollars while creating an unnecessary burden for seafood processors, including two companies with plants in Motley, and do nothing to protect consumer safety. Instead, he said, it's a measure to protect the southern catfish industry that could have international trade implications.

A Government Accountability Office report from 2012 recommended seafood inspection be left in the hands of the FDA. Lawmakers cited that study when, with bipartisan support, the House managed to eliminate the program in its version of the farm bill. But it lives on in the Senate version, with support of the Senate Agriculture Committee ranking Republican member Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a state with a large catfish industry.

House and Senate negotiators are currently hammering out farm bill differences. Since only the four leaders of the agriculture committees in both chambers are making the decisions - and the provision is a high priority for Cochran - Nolan fears the program will make it into the final bill.

"We still might end up getting stuck with the dang thing," he said. "When something like this sees the light of day, the results are different.

"I've been told time and again that Thad Cochran is saying unless he gets his catfish program, there will be no farm bill. It's absurd. It's wrong."

Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos disputed that notion in an email.

"Senator Cochran has made it clear that his priority is to complete the new farm bill and get it signed into law," Gallegos wrote. "Conferees continue to work on a farm bill agreement with the clear intent of passing legislation in January."

Gallegos wrote that Congress never intended for the inspection to be duplicative, but rather for it to make use of an agency with a larger staff to ensure more inspections took place. "Implementing the USDA program is in the clear best interest of the American consumer."

He pointed to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report that called for improvements in FDA seafood inspection of imported fish.

In an emailed statement, Mississippi catfish farmer Ben Pentecost wrote the USDA program is about equivalent standards for domestic and foreign catfish, not trying to hurt trade.

The president of the Catfish Farmers of America wrote that right now, only 2 percent of all imported seafood is inspected.

"If the USDA inspection program is repealed, 98 percent of imports will continue to be sold directly to American families with no inspection whatsoever," he wrote. "The FDA is failing miserably when it comes to protecting consumers from the dangers of imported seafood and catfish ... Supporting USDA catfish inspections is not asking foreign importers to be placed under any different standards than we are here."

But in a 2011 letter to the USDA Food Safety and Inspections Services administrator, the president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, wrote the catfish inspection program might have serious trade consequences.

"ECAT is highly concerned that the proposed mandatory catfish inspections might violate US international commitments and lead other countries to adopt even more restrictive import programs to the detriment of US agriculture and other exporters," Calman Cohen wrote.

Jim Walstrom, president of Morey's Seafood International, which has 140 full-time employees at its Motley plant, sees the USDA program as a way for southern catfish producers to reduce imports of lower cost foreign fish.

"There is no safety problem, there never was a safety problem," Walstrom said. "This is a debate about the industry being burdened with duplicative inspection."

If the program is implemented, Morey's would have to have two inspectors instead of one and would most likely stop processing any catfish - they handle very few - in Motley.

Walstrom fears the USDA program would be expanded to include other fish, such as tilapia, which is 30 percent of the seafood volume at the plant. "That would have a dramatic impact," he said. "That would cost a lot of jobs. This is the thin end of a wedge."

Walstrom also said he worries about the trade retaliation for Minnesota's other agricultural products. He cited corn and soybeans, which are shipped to some of the countries that export catfish to the United States. Trouble in those sectors would ripple through the state's economy.

"If that is threatened, then what are we really doing?," he said. "We're wasting money and losing imports."

Any economic downturn has an affect on seafood sales, Walstrom said, since people have less disposable income to spend on what is often seen as a luxury. "I've weathered enough recessions to know the impact the economy has on my sales. It can be very direct."