Cochran questions Vilsack on progress of imported catfish inspections

WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) yesterday again stressed to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack the importance to U.S. food safety and the economy of implementing a program to more thoroughly inspect imported catfish.

Cochran addressed the issue at Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the FY2013 budget request for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Cochran asked Vilsack about the status of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s effort to implement an imported catfish inspection program, as mandated by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill. The senator has been pushing the USDA for nearly three years to make progress on the inspection process. Regulations for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) program were supposed to be released 18 months after enactment of the 2008 Farm Bill.

“The outcome of this inspection process remains important to the U.S. fish industry, particularly in the South where a substantial investment has been made to produce catfish. We authorized this program to assure Americans that imported fish is being held to the same standards as domestic catfish and to put our catfish industry on more equal footing with the global competition,” Cochran said. “I would still like to see progress on this front, even as we prepare for a new Farm Bill.”

Vilsack testified that the USDA is continuing to review comments on a draft regulation, but added that the process has been complicated by the lack of a clear definition from Congress of which variety of catfish should be subject to inspection. The draft regulation issued in 2011 proposed two definitions for catfish — one a narrow definition and the other a broader classification that incorporates all catfish types, including the Pangasiidae fish commonly farmed in some Southeast Asian countries.

“Literally, it is a very difficult circumstance and situation because depending upon how narrow or broadly you define that term it impacts and affects quite a bit,” Vilsack said.

According to Cochran, President Obama’s budget request does not recommend specific FY2013 funding for the FSIS catfish inspection program. Last year, the Congress provided $1.0 billion overall for the FSIS and included a provision directing the agency to continue implementation of the catfish inspection program.

Last year, Cochran provided testimony at a USDA public meeting on the proposed catfish definitions and supported the broader definition. He argued that the narrower definition would exempt most imported catfish from meeting stricter food safety requirements.

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