GAO targets catfish program

Calls new layer of inspections a waste of cash

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In unusually blunt language, Congress‘ top auditor told the federal government last week to scrap plans for a special catfish-inspection program, saying the new office lawmakers approved just a few years ago is turning out to be a waste of money.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of the Agriculture Department, is still setting up the catfish office based on instructions from the 2008 farm bill — a move some senators said was designed to aid American catfish producers by making it harder for Asian imports to compete.

But the review by the Government Accountability Office says the Food and Drug Administration is already in charge of inspecting catfish along with all other seafood, and said a new layer of inspections won’t enhance safety but will cost taxpayers $14 million a year.

“The agency’s proposed catfish inspection program further fragments the federal oversight system for food safety without demonstrating that there is a problem with catfish or a need for a new federal program,” GAO investigators said in their report, released Friday afternoon.

The findings put a giant bull’s-eye on the FSIS catfish program.

Duplicative programs have become a chief target for cutting ever since Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and Congress‘ chief waste-watcher, pushed GAO to do a series of studies that identify areas where the federal government wastes money through duplication.

President Obama in one of his State of the Union addresses specifically mocked another seafood-inspection regime that divides approval of salmon among different agencies. But catfish is tougher for Mr. Obama, since American producers want protections, but foreign countries — particularly Vietnam — say new restrictions on catfish imports would violate U.S. trade obligations.

Already, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona, a Democrat and Republican, have said they’ll offer an amendment to the farm bill, pending in the Senate right now, to eliminate the new FSIS catfish-inspection office.

Mr. Kerry called the dueling agencies a “train wreck.”

“Two duplicative and competing sets of regulations is a job killer that has nothing to do with food safety and would hurt seafood processors from Gloucester to New Bedford,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Mr. McCain said Congress demanded the new office in the last farm bill in 2008 as a way of trying to push out Asian catfish imports and force Americans to pay higher prices.

GAO said FSIS would have to come up with a food hazard plan that would be essentially the same as the one FDA already has, and there could end up being as many as three agencies with the responsibility of inspecting catfish-processing facilities.

The costs would also rise by 20-fold. FDA told auditors it spends less than $700,000 a year on inspections of catfish-processing plants, but FSIS said it will have to spend $14 million a year to get involved in inspections.

GAO also said FSIS overstated the risk of salmonella from catfish.

FSIS didn’t return messages left late Friday seeking comment. In an official response to GAO, FSIS said it would proceed with the catfish office because the 2008 law requires it to do so.

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