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McCain takes aim square at Mississippi catfish farmers

March 11th, 2011 Comments off

Bennie Thompson ain’t talking about catfish, but Sen. John McCain is.
We have asked Congressman Thompson to comment on the new catfish inspection program that critics say threatens to derail U.S. trade relations with Vietnam. He has never returned a phone call or an e-mail.
However, last week, we ran a story on our website about the catfish industry’s reaction to a proposal by McCain to repeal that very same law, and the McCain camp was on the phone.
They wanted to know where the story came from, and why we were running it and why we didn’t have a response from Sen. McCain.
That’s what I am looking for, I said.
This whole thing has boggled my mind from the beginning and I wanted someone to explain why there would be any consideration for choosing Vietnamese fish in a trade debate ahead of U.S. catfish.
What the McCain camp sent was a canned, rambling floor statement, which read, in part, “Mr. President, Section 11016 is nothing more than the latest effort by members of Congress serving the special interests of the catfish industry in their home states. A similar protectionist tactic was tried in the 2002 Farm Bill when many of these same members slipped in language that made it illegal to label Vietnamese catfish (‘pangasius’) as catfish in U.S. retail markets.”
Mississippi’s Thad Cochran also responded to interview requests, saying, “My initial reaction to legislation to repeal the USDA catfish inspection authority is that it is uncalled for.
“I will oppose it,” Cochran continued. “The Department of Agriculture should be given a chance to finally carry out the inspection authority Congress gave it in 2008. This inspection process would help ensure that imported catfish are as safe and nutritious as the catfish produced in Mississippi and elsewhere. We do not have that assurance today The current federal inspection regime involves testing a very small percentage – only 2 percent — of the catfish imported into this country. While I regret the long, drawn-out process to implement this USDA mandate, I believe it remains important.”
Unfortunately, neither Cochran nor McCain’s positions do a lot to help the Mississippi catfish farmers, mostly conservative and mostly Republican, who are going broke.
As someone without a dog in the fight, other than being from a state that produces farm-raised catfish, it would appear Sen. McCain is more concerned about trade with Vietnam than the economy in the South, specifically.
Mississippi catfish growers have taken a huge financial hit from the import of catfish products, according to statistics from U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In recent weeks, we reported that Itta Bena-based Heartland Catfish is making cutbacks. Many other independent farmers are turning over their ponds to go back to row crops, and this has been going on for years now.
It won’t be too long before there isn’t a debate to have as all of the catfish ponds around the South will have dried up.
We won’t take it for granted, like we do now, of the all-you-can-eat buffets across Mississippi and the rest of the Southeast.
It will become something we eat when we go and catch the big one; you know, the one that has grown up in the Mississippi River where it has survived on a constant diet of sludge and pollutants.
You know, kind of like the fish the Vietnamese importing to us now.

Contact Mississippi Business Journal editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.