When competition from Asian catfish farmers, coupled with high feed and fuel costs, cut into its business, America’s catfish industry began noodling for favors. Since an outright tariff on imported catfish and catfish-like farmed fish wouldn’t pass Congress and would launch a trade war with Vietnam and China, the farmers asked for, and received, protection of another sort. Congress added another layer of catfish inspectors whose redundant, exorbitant cost has rightly become the target of Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Sen. John McCain.
The federal Food and Drug Administration already inspects samples of imported catfish at a cost of $700,000 annually. The inspections are critical to guarantee the safety of the food supply, since production and environmental standards in Asia tend to be weak, and restrictions on the use of chemicals lax. In 2008, a provision was inserted in the federal farm bill that created a second office, this one housed in the Department of Agriculture, whose mission is also to inspect imported catfish. The new agency’s real purpose is to serve as another hurdle in the path of Asian catfish importers to protect the remaining southern catfish farmers at the expense of consumers, who of course, will have to pay more if imports are reduced or eliminated.
The USDA has spent $20 million to set up the office, which expects to have an annual operating budget of $14 million per year. It’s been five years since the bill passed, but the agency’s staff has yet to inspect a single catfish.
The General Accounting Office, on five occasions, called the new office a waste of money. The enforcement efforts of the FDA could be beefed up for a fraction of the cost of the new program, which is what should be done.
“Catfish is one bottom-feeder with friends in high places,” McCain said of the boondoggle.
“There is no reason for taxpayers to be subsidizing a duplicative catfish inspection program that will cost millions to set up and another $15 million to operate annually,” Shaheen told reporters in announcing the duo’s effort to deep-six the agency. We wish Shaheen and McCain luck. The new agency deserves to sleep with the fishes.