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Cochran questions USDA budget

WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is questioning how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) expects to use its budget to address farming and agriculture issues in Mississippi, including pending catfish inspection regulations and settling longstanding discrimination claims by African American farmers.

Cochran serves on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that March 2 received testimony from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the FY2011 budget request for the USDA.

Cochran sought information on the status of the USDA effort to implement a 2008 Farm Bill mandate that it begin inspecting imported catfish.

“We have been advised by some of our aquaculture and catfish farmer constituents that the Department hasn’t been doing much to support them in their efforts to get inspections of foreign fish that are imported into the country. This makes it difficult to compete because the importers are not going through the same inspection processes or other safeguards that are required of our domestic producers. We have got a problem here, and folks are not only angry but some of them are also going out of business,” Cochran said.

Vilsack reported the USDA has submitted draft regulations for approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In February, OMB announced that it would delay the release of the rule for another 90 days, citing the need for “more analysis of the issues involved.”

“We have made our determination as to what we think is appropriate. But in light of the process that we have to follow, folks have to sign off on that. We are encouraging OMB to do that as quickly as possible,” Vilsack testified. “We recognize this is a complicated circumstance because you got safety issues, you got consumer information issues, you got the economic development capacities of folks who are raising these fish in America. You also obviously have relationships with other countries that get complicated based on decisions that we make here.”

Cochran also submitted additional questions to Vilsack on the USDA budget that recommends a $10.3-million decrease for USDA Catfish Inspection Program, well below the $15.3 million provided by the Congress for the program in FY2010.

“Regulations for this program were supposed to be released 18 months after enactment of the Farm Bill. That goal has been missed and I am concerned how the FY2011 budget request would affect the eventual implementation of this program, which is crucial to ensuring food safety,” Cochran said. “We have seen many instances of imported catfish shipments not meeting the safety standards in place for other imported and domestically raised agriculture products. It is my hope that the Department will quickly release these regulations and will promptly begin the inspection and grading program.”

Related to the settlement of discrimination claims made by black farmers against the USDA, Vilsack told Cochran that the Department needs Congress to approve $1.25 billion by the end of March in order to advance a settlement agreement reached in February between African American farmers, USDA and the Department of Justice.

“Thousands of the farmers that have claims against the USDA in this case are in Mississippi. I hope this settlement will resolve these claims in a fair way that is consistent with the court rulings rendered in these cases,” Cochran said.

Vilsack indicated that the settlement process, once funded by Congress, is expected to be carried out similarly to the settlements reached in the late 1990s in the original Pigford v. Glickman suit.

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