Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) deserves a salute. She sought to add an amendment to the monster Farm Bill that would have eliminated a new USDA program for inspecting farm-raised catfish. The fish are already inspected before ever getting to your dinner plate, not by the USDA but by the FDA, which along with the National Marine Fisheries Service inspects all seafood. The USDA wants to inspect them too, and expensively: While the FDA inspection program costs about $700,000 per year, the USDA’s will cost $14 million per year. Rep. Hartzler thought the USDA program would be a waste so her amendment eliminated it. The Senate had already agreed, and its version of the Farm Bill did not include the USDA catfish inspection program.
Farm raised catfish are not considered a problem at all in the way that, say, Buckyballs have come under federal scorn. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put down the zombie apocalypse scare stories long enough to note that farm raised catfish are a low-risk food (they’re also delicious, but the CDC did not weigh in on that). The USDA, then, does not appear to be responding to any crisis in the commercial fisheries. It is just expanding its power.
The USDA is not expanding its power in a smart or efficient way. Its inspection program virtually duplicates the FDA program, according to the Government Accounting Office, which says in a report:
First, the program requires implementation of hazard analysis plans that are essentially the same as FDA’s hazard analysis requirements. Second, if the program is implemented, as many as three agencies—FDA, FSIS, and NMFS—could inspect facilities that process both catfish and other types of seafood. Both FDA and NMFS officials stated that continuous inspection will not improve catfish safety and is counter to the use of FDA’s hazard analysis requirements, in which systems are most efficiently monitored periodically rather than daily. Third, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gives FDA authority to establish a system to accredit third party auditors, including foreign governments, to certify imported seafood meets FDA regulatory requirements.
As can be expected of any federal intrusion, the USDA’s inspection program will raises costs twice: Once in the cost of the program itself, and again in the program’s impact on commercial fish producers and the stores and restaurants that sell the fish.
According to FSIS, implementing this program will cost the government and industry about $14 million annually. If FSIS’s proposed program were implemented, GAO expects it would cause duplication and inefficient use of resources in several key areas.
There may be protectionism lurking behind support for the USDA’s inspection program. At the 72:22 mark in the linked video, a program supporter in the Senate, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) comes out and says that the expensive, duplicative inspection program is a way of “dealing with competition from overseas” to protect a “very substantial financial investment.” That’s not what food inspections are supposed to be for.
Some on the House Agriculture Committee who support the USDA’s inspection program refused to back down and went bipartisan Orwellian. Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) said with a straight face during hearings on the bill that eliminating the USDA program, which costs about $14 million a year and the GAO considers unnecessary, would not save the taxpayers one penny. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) also evidently has not read the GAO report, and testified that eliminating the program would not save any money. Clearly, eliminating a program that costs $14 million would say, oh, about $14 million.
Failure to read reports and legislation before voting is not a crime in Washington, but both can lead to harmful effects like ObamaCare. In the case of the catfish inspections, it led to the House Ag Committee rejecting the Hertzler amendment by a vote of 25-20, which would have eliminated the USDA program. The House’s version of the Farm Bill still includes the wasteful USDA catfish inspection program.