Catfish program repeal fails with new Farm Bill passage

The new five-year farm bill the US House of Representatives and Senate compromised on this week failed to cut out the US catfish inspection program, putting a barrier on catfish imports into the United States.

As written into the 2008 Farm Bill, the $14 million per year program would assign inspection of catfish imports to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a rung of the inspection chain that could pose serious threats to imports.

In reaction to the decision, QVD Aquaculture CEO Chris December had harsh words for US Congress.

"I find the entire decision by our government just another signal that reinforces the lack of the courage and direction our country is taking," December, who sells pangasius -- also known as catfish -- from Vietnam said.

Although it has not been implemented yet, the program's inclusion in this new Farm Bill makes its implementation all the more likely, which poses risks to the imports of foreign catfish, known as pangasius.

The final ruling directly contradicts the stance of majorities in both the branches of US congress, according to Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), which has been lobbying against the bill out of concern for the US catfish import industry. It appears to be the result of last minute political wrangling.

"It is important to note that it did not lose in the Farm Bill, in fact (program repeal) had the votes to win in the Farm Bill—overwhelmingly," Gibbons said. "However, the repeal language was stripped out of the Bill by Senator Thad Cochran. Had the conferees had the opportunity to vote, it would have passed with a super-majority."

The House of Representatives passed an amendment to get rid of it last July after its agricultural committee voted for repeal last spring. Senator John McCain has also issued repeated, outspoken calls to repeal the program both in writing and proposals to the senate floor.

The lack of repeal is a huge disappointment to NFI and the industry it represents, considering catfish from overseas already has its share of challenges, including low market prices and duties. For Gibbons, it's also a sign of failure in the political process.

"It is disappointing to see one member of Congress allowed usurp the will of a super-majority in the House and Senate in order to protect a wasteful, special interest project that hurts the seafood community at large," Gibbons said.

Public groups such as the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, Americans for Job Security, Cost of Government Center, Taxpayers for Common sense and more wrote a letter to senators Thad Cochran and others this month, imploring them to repeal the program.

The most prominent point of argument among opponents is that the costly program is wasteful. Catfish coming into the US is already inspected by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Catfish Farmers of America, whose product competes directly with low priced foreign catfish imports, say the program is vital for food safety. With this constituent at their backs, Chair and Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, Senators Debbie Stabenow and Thad Cochran, blocked a vote on McCain’s amendment to the bill last summer and proved to be a powerful strain of opposition.

The battle may have just begun, considering that last November, Vietnamese catfish producers said the proposed inspection program backed by American producers amounted to a trade barrier, and as a result, Vietnamese trade officials wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, the White House and members of congress to threaten trade retaliation if the program is not repealed.

Meanwhile, December said the program is confusing, considering that the government has previously ruled that pangasius is not a catfish. This definition is being upheld by the Department of Commerce, in accordance with a lawsuit filed by the Catfish Farmers of American, he said, raising the obvious question: "So does it really fall under the USDA catch inspection program?"

Yet considering the program was first put in place in 2008 and has yet to be implemented, December has hope this decision will remain a moot point.

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