Sen. John McCain is mounting a last-minute plea to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to delay implementation of new catfish inspection rules slated to fully kick in Friday, saying all catfish inspections should be returned to the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration.
Mr. McCain said the new inspection regime under the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is a thinly-disguised trade barrier against Asian catfish imports at the hands of domestic farmers in southern states.
“This wasteful program is a classic example of shortsighted, anti-free market protectionism at its worst,” Mr. McCain wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week.
“I request that you delay implementation of the USDA Catfish Inspection Program until Congress has an opportunity to reverse this duplicative, wasteful program,” he wrote.
Most fish is inspected by the FDA, but Congress — led by southern Republicans looking to protect their state’s industry — included language in the 2008 Farm bill that set the stage to transfer catfish inspections to a more intrusive process under FSIS.
Some of the new inspections have already been taking place, but the new rules are slated to fully take effect on Sept. 1.
Proponents of the new system say the USDA inspections are more thorough than the FDA process and are preventing tainted fish from entering U.S. markets.
“Now that the USDA has completed the transition and is inspecting 100 percent of catfish imports, American consumers can expect a much higher level of food safety from catfish purchased in the United States,” Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, said recently.
The Government Accountability Office, though, has repeatedly said the old system was working fine and that making the transfer would be wasteful and duplicative.
The GAO has said the USDA inspections would cost about $14 million a year for duplicative inspectors, though the latest figure from FSIS lowered that cost estimate figure to $2.6 million a year.
Mr. McCain also said the new inspection program would result in higher food prices and endanger American jobs that rely on imported seafood.
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson also wrote to Mr. Perdue recently and asked him to exempt domestic, wild-caught catfish from the new rules.
And Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the new rules could imperil his state’s emerging Blue Catfish market, endangering jobs.