CLEVELAND – Delta Council officials are worried that U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of imported catfish may be delayed two years beyond next year’s expected start of USDA inspections of domestically produced catfish.
Council officials relayed concerns over the possible inspection delays to U.S. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden during her visit here to deliver the keynote address to the 79th annual meeting of the Delta Council last Friday. Delta officials are especially disturbed that another delay would mark a continuation of a series of delays in an inspection mandate initially enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill.
Council officials also raised concerns about the shape rules for awarding commodity price protections will take. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has significant latitude in designating which members of a family farming operation can receive price protections, said Chip Morgan, president & CEO of the Stoneville-based organization created to advocate for economic development in the Mississippi Delta, especially within an agriculture sector that employs 30,000 people in the 18-county region.
The catfish inspections schedule and the commodity price protections are addressed in separate titles of the 2014 Farm Bill. Rule writing for the titles has been completed and is under review by the Office of Management and Budget.
While the form the rules will take won’t be known until the OMB releases them for public comment, Morgan said the Delta Council’s “intelligence” on the USDA catfish inspections indicates a possible delay to 2018, while inspections for catfish produced in Mississippi and elsewhere in the United States would begin undergoing the inspections at in 2016.
Morgan attributed the possible inspection delays to intensive lobbying from Vietnam and China, both exporters of huge numbers of pond-raised “pangasius” catfish. U.S. importers of Asian catfish also are exerting strong influence, Morgan said.
Justification for any disparity in the inspection timetables is a mystery, according to Morgan. But the result is hardly a mystery, he said.
“If one is going to be inspected in 2016 and other not until 2018, that means one must meet different food safety standards than the other.”
Domestic producers are eager for the inspections to start, believing that the USDA seals of approval on their products will boost their market share, Morgan said.
But the U.S. industry worries about the safety of the imported catfish and cite evidence that the imported fish are receiving antibiotics that are outlawed in the U.S.. food chain.
Still others cite high levels of contamination found in imported catfish inspected by the current inspection authority, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Bottom line, Morgan said: “We want equivalent standards to be administered at the same time.”
He said the message to Deputy Secretary Harden was that without the equal treatment, “We are going to have to vigorously oppose the final rule.”
Domestic producers for years prodded Congress to transfer the job of doing the inspections from the FDA to the USDA, citing the low percentage of actual inspections compared to the volume of imports. The FDA, they argued, did not have the resources to do a thorough and effective job.
After Congress agreed to the switch in 2008, years of delays followed as various interests wrangled over the definition of the word “catfish.”
On the commodities price protections, Delta Council leaders want the rules to specify that family members eligible for the protections have an actual stake in the family farm operations.
The council position is that the protection should not go to family members who merely join in on a family conference call once a month, Morgan said.
The protections which could come into play instances of commodities dumping by foreign countries should be limited to family members with an actual stake in the farming operation, Morgan said.
“In Mississippi you have got to have land, labor or capital. That’s pretty simple to me. That means you’re at risk. The Delta Council thinks that certainly makes you eligible.”