- - Sunday, September 11, 2016

The catfish is a tasty critter that long ago outlived a less than glorious reputation. The Native American catfish is a sluggard that lives in the bayous and rivers of the Deep South, eager to suck up whatever moves among the tin cans, bottles and accumulated trash on the bottom of the stream (and not to be confused with “catfish” who swim through the internet in pursuit of gamier prey).

Catfish destined for modern tables live a life of Riley on the farm, mostly in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana, on a diet of carefully formulated meal made from soybeans, corn, wheat, vitamins and minerals. More than half of 600 million pounds of catfish raised annually in the United States is produced in Mississippi alone.

Some supermarket catfish comes from Vietnam, and catfish imports are severely restricted. These restrictions have been nurtured over the past 15 years by Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and his allies from adjoining states. The senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee works hard to keep imports, from Southeast Asia and mostly from Vietnam, off American tables. Mr. Cochran almost lost his seat in the Senate two years ago and he may owe survival to the catfish.

He has managed to move responsibility for catfish inspection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generally responsible for fish, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where it looks after beef, pork and poultry. (They’re big in Mississippi, too.)

Changing bureaucrats won’t make catfish less expensive at the supermarket, nor will it make catfish safer to eat, but it will make inspections cost more and might make a catfish filet cost more, too. The Food and Drug Administration spends $700,000 annually on inspections, and the Department of Agriculture expects to spend $20 million to organize an inspection program and spend $14 million per year after that. Catfish from the bayou never had it that good.

Catfish is the sixth most popular fish in America, having grown beyond its reputation as a regional food staple, and now the bureaucrats are fighting over it. The Senate has voted to restore farm-raised catfish to the care of the Food and Drug Administration, and the House has yet to vote. Two hundred members of the House have asked for a vote, but so far Speaker Paul Ryan has made no commitments, perhaps because of pressure from Sen. Cochran and powerful Southern congressmen who want to transfer catfish to the Department of Agriculture. That looks like a little pork in the catfish, and powerful interests are on a collision course. Consumer groups say changing agencies is likely to make catfish filets more expensive because whatever costs accrue will be passed on, as accrued costs always are.

Catfish filets, which are boneless and come to the table with a light and tasty cornbread crust, are always accompanied by a dodger made of cornmeal and seasonings (recipes are guarded like old family formulas for barbecue sauce), and in the old days a piece of the dodger was often slipped under the table to satisfy a hungry puppy. The struggle goes on, but the senator and his Southerners are not likely to be satisfied with mere hushpuppies.

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