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Food Fight

On catfish, farmed and wild.

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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There isn’t much left in life that is unregulated and without some degree of government supervision or protection. You get used to it, I suppose. And, anyway, you don’t have much choice. But you do need to pay attention because nothing is off limits.

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If only I’d been regulated by the Ag Dept.

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In Vermont, where I live, there was a modest panic a short time back when the FDA announced it would be introducing new regulations governing the aging of cheese. How the world had managed—for hundreds of years—while eating cheese that had been aged in unregulated fashion is beyond knowing. But the FDA would be putting an end to this anarchical state of affairs. Henceforth and hereafter cheese makers would not be permitted to put their rounds on wooden planks for aging. They would be required to use metal or plastic. For consumer protection.

Vermont’s cheese industry would have been crippled, and there was much relief when the agency backed off, saying that it was “reconsidering.” The translation of which is: “Wait till next time.” Regulators do not give up.

So I wasn’t especially surprised when I saw an item in the New York Times on a trade war brewing around .  .  . catfish. Stories on tariffs and trade fights don’t normally count as compelling reading for me. But, as with the cheese laws, this one touched on a matter in which I had a prior interest. I’m fond of catfish. Fried, with hushpuppies and coleslaw.

Also, from what I knew, if there was anything in the world that could get along—indeed, thrive—without help from the government, that would be the catfish. It is a scavenger, par excellence. In rivers and ponds where nothing else lives, the catfish thrives. But, of course, we are talking here about farmed catfish. And when something is farmed, that makes it an agricultural product. Agriculture was one of the first areas of life that government got its fingers around during the great takeover that began not quite a hundred years ago. Among its other policy breakthroughs, the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933 included an inspired plan for raising the price of beef and pork. What farmers needed to do was slaughter a sizable number of their pigs and cattle, then bury the bodies, thus shrinking supply. It must be conceded that if that is the objective, this method will work every single time.

According to the Times story, the Department of Agriculture is, indeed, a player in the current catfish wars. Congress, as part of the latest farm bill (one of those 1,000-page monstrosities), has commanded the Department of Agriculture to start inspecting imported catfish, almost all of which comes from Asian nations that can bring in their fillets at more than a dollar less per pound than the American operations.

Catfish farming was a good thing in parts of the American South for many years. A man of my acquaintance in Alabama was at risk of losing his farm when the price of soybeans cratered back in the ’70s. He dug ponds on the property and started raising catfish and, for a while, he prospered. But the catfish boom faltered under pressure from foreign competition. My friend lost his farm. His story was sad but not unique. In 2005, American producers supplied about 80 percent of the catfish sold in this country. By 2012, that was down to just over 20 percent.

When it comes to factory farming of catfish, Vietnamese and other Asian producers have the usual advantage in labor costs. Furthermore, they don’t have slow seasons due to weather. Also, they can flush their ponds without worrying about EPA clean water standards, leading some to charge that their product is unsanitary and unsafe.

But consumer protection and education is not really the issue. The farm bill calls for inspection by the Department of Agriculture in spite of the fact that the FDA already inspects imported catfish. It is normally the agency responsible for making sure imported seafoods are safe, while Agriculture handles beef, chicken, and pork. And, now, catfish. This, in spite of the fact that a couple of years ago another agency, the Government Accountability Office, found that the new Department of Agriculture inspection program would “not enhance the safety of catfish.”

Nevertheless, the 2008 farm bill had directed the Agriculture Department to get on with it. While the FDA has been doing its inspections at a cost of about $700,000 annually, the price range for setting up the new inspection shop at Agriculture, which has not yet inspected a single catfish, is in the neighborhood of $20 million. According to the Times, the office has a staff of four. But this must be a misprint. The government cannot possibly inspect zero catfish with so few people. No way a mere four people could inspect no catfish. The number must really be 40, or 400.

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