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End the Catfish-Inspection Boondoggle | Commentary

Leave it to Washington to create a multimillion-dollar solution to a nonexistent problem that requires the creation of a new bureaucracy, all for the sole purpose of increasing the profits of a small number of catfish farmers. Kafka would understand, but U.S. taxpayers should be angry.

This would be laughable if it weren’t so harmful. A new federal catfish inspection program, included in the 2008 farm bill to pad the profits of a handful of domestic catfish producers, now threatens to kill jobs across a broad swath of U.S. agriculture, while increasing costs to consumers and potentially blocking a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. When the Senate takes up trade legislation this week, I will offer a bipartisan amendment to repeal this special-interest boondoggle.

Catfish has soared in popularity to become the sixth most popular seafood in the U.S. Meanwhile, a small number of domestic catfish producers, seeking to boost profits by blocking imports, arranged to have an ingenious provision included in the farm bill. Here’s how it works: The Food and Drug Administration previously was the inspector of all foreign and domestic fish products. But the provision in the farm bill requires the Department of Agriculture to take over responsibility for inspecting catfish — and catfish only. The USDA inspection process is more stringent and costly, and would require catfish-producing countries to set up a regulatory system similar to the U.S. This could take years, during which time catfish imports would be disrupted, if not completely blocked.

But because this program is a thinly disguised trade barrier, other countries are threatening to strike back by securing World Trade Organization-sanctioned retaliation, which would kill jobs across a wide range of U.S. agricultural sectors, including beef, soy, poultry, pork, grain, fruit and cotton.

Requiring USDA inspection of catfish would also kill jobs and cut production at U.S. fish processors. Companies that process catfish as well as other types of fish in the same facility would pay dearly to accommodate duplicative federal oversight — USDA inspectors for catfish only; FDA inspectors for all fish except catfish — and many have said they would eliminate jobs and stop processing catfish altogether rather than comply.

There is no need whatsoever for a separate USDA catfish inspection process. In terms of food safety, catfish are no different from other fish — indeed, the USDA regards them as a “low-risk food,” and Dr. Steven Solomon, a top regulatory official at the FDA, told the Senate’s Small Business Committee last week he is “not aware of any specific safety hazard unique to catfish.”

Yet, the USDA has already burned through $20 million without inspecting a single catfish, and may have to spend up to $15 million a year to operate the program.

Since 2011, the Government Accountability Office has issued nine separate reports calling the program unnecessary and urging its repeal. It’s time to get the job done.

The creation of this program was an example of special-interest influence on Congress at its worst. We can set an example of Congress at its best by ending this job-killing boondoggle with a resounding bipartisan vote.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is a Democrat from New Hampshire.

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