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Leaders of ag panels dispute GAO claim of duplicate foreign catfish inspections

The Government Accounting Office is muddying the waters with its claim that the government is unnecessarily doubling up on imported catfish inspections, say Republican leaders on both the House and Senate agriculture committees.

The GAO insists needless duplication is occurring with mandates that both the Food & Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture handle catfish inspections. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Republican member Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi any duplication that is occurring stems from Obama administration delays in initiating the transfer required under a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill that put the USDA in charge of ensuring imported catfish was safe for consumption. Money has not been allocated and until it is the USDA can’t take full charge, they say.

“Once the administration publishes the final regulation, USDA will be the sole food safety regulatory agency responsible for catfish inspections,” Lucas said in a press statement this week.

A proposed USDA rule issued in February did not resolve the definition of which catfish or related fish types to which the federal rule would apply.

The GAO’s complaints about duplicated services and costs came in a report criticizing the inspection of seafood imported into the United States and calling for increased oversight of inspections and better leveraging of limited resources.

Cochran found plenty to agree with in the report’s criticisms of the job FDA is doing. “The GAO has confirmed what many of us have maintained for some time: that the existing federal program to inspect imported seafood is so limited that it is insufficient and ineffective,” Cochran said in a press statement.

Cochran said the FDA inspection shortcoming led him to seek the transfer to the USDA in the 2008 Farm Bill. It’s also why Congress wants the USDA “to decisively move forward with new federal safety standards for foreign catfish imports,” he said.

Specifically, the GAO report faults the FDA for failing to full ensure the safety of seafood imports against residues of drugs used by foreign aquaculture operations. Antibiotics can be used to fight bacteria in pond-raised seafood but the FDA is responsible for certifying the safety of seafood against residues from unapproved drugs, the senator said.

The FDA, according to GAO report, tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues in fiscal 2009.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Catfish Institute is warning that the FDA has said across-the-board federal “sequestration” budget cuts mean far fewer seafood safety inspections and increased risk for consumers.

The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of imported seafood, which now accounts for as much as 90 percent of seafood Americans eat. At present, the FDA inspects about 2 percent of imported seafood and only tests about two-tenths on one percent for banned and dangerous drugs and chemical additives, the Catfish Institute says.

“This means that 98 percent of imported seafood receives no inspection at all for safety or labeling fraud,” the institute said in a press statement.

The FDA faces $318 million in cuts and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will be sliced by $712 million. Customs and border enforcement is to be cut an additional $453 million.




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