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Bait and Switch: The Farm Bill's Expensive and Pointless Catfish Subsidy

5:23 PM, Nov 20, 2013 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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As Congress moves ahead with the farm bill -- legislation that has historically been full of (figurative) pork -- there's one really obvious measure that needs to be eliminated. A new program that will require that catfish be monitored by the Department of Agriculture. Catfish, like all fish consumed by Americans, is already monitored by the Food and Drug Administration. Supposedly, this extra layer of regulation is a matter of food safety. But according to the Heritage Foundation, this doubling up on regulatory oversight is both expensive and unwarranted:

Facilities that process catfish and other seafood will have to comply with both FDA requirements for seafood (not including catfish) and USDA requirements for catfish. This USDA catfish program will cost taxpayers about $14 million annually.

Proponents of this new, burdensome program justify it based on safety reasons. However, both the FDA and Centers for Disease Control consider commercially raised catfish to be a low-risk food. The USDA has stated that salmonella is the primary food safety hazard with catfish. In its analysis, the USDA found only one possible salmonella outbreak connected to catfish, and that was more than 20 years ago in 1991.

Earlier this year, the duplicative catfish regulations featured prominently in the Government Accountability Office's "2013 Annual Report: Actions Needed to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits." It's also worth noting the GAO has called out these problematic regulations on at least two other occasions. Now the redundant catfish regulations have become an international incident. The New York Times reported last week that Vietnam is threatening to scuttle a major trade deal over the catfish regulations:

Vietnam, a large exporter of catfish and one of the nations in the trade talks, says it is nothing more than a trade barrier in disguise.

“And it’s not even a good disguise; it’s clearly a thinly veiled attempt designed to keep out fish from countries like Vietnam,” said Le Chi Dzung, who heads the economics section at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.

It's hard to argue that this isn't a protectionist racket. The retired chief of the FDA’s Seafood Processing and Technology Policy Branch observed, "The inspiration for this rush to spend $30 million (to start) of hard earned taxpayer dollars on a non-existent problem is a group of lobbyists and a trade association representing elements of the American catfish producers." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) were behind an effort to kill the attempt to duplicate catfish inspection at the USDA earlier this year. "But despite our repeated requests, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), have chosen to block a vote," McCain lamented. It will not be surprising to learn that catfish farming is a big concern in Cochran's home state.

It's understandable that politicians in Washington would want to extend protections to bottom-feeders out of professional courtesy. But if lawmakers in D.C. truly want to act in the interests of taxpayers and ensure that the farm bill doesn't live up to its reputation as a vehicle for waste and favor trading, killing these pointless and expensive catfish regulations would be a good start.

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