A group of southern senators is blocking an attempted repeal of a food testing program whose critics say is duplicative and expensive.
The 2008 farm bill transferred authority to inspect catfish from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
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Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) led the effort to shift the inspection authority from the one agency to the other.
An amendment to this year’s farm bill proposed by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Sen. Jean Shaheen (D., N.H.) would strip the USDA of its authority to inspect catfish — an authority that is has not implemented after five years. The amendment, which the Senate passed for last year’s farm bill before it was removed in negotiations with the House, will likely not reach a vote due to Cochran’s objections.
The FDA only inspects about two percent of imported seafood, including catfish, said Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos, citing a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from 2011. This small sample size leaves Americans at risk and the shift in regulatory authority is an effort to fix that, he said.
Implementing the new regulatory regime will lead the USDA to halt the import of foreign catfish for up to seven years, a boon to southern domestic catfish farmers, McCain wrote in an editorial for Politico.
"That’s protectionism at its worst," said an aide to McCain.
A GAO report from 2012, titled "Responsibility for Inspecting Catfish Should Not Be Assigned to USDA," found that the new regulatory regime would cost the government and industry $14 million each year if it does get implemented.
The report noted that as many as three regulatory agencies would be charged with inspecting some seafood importers.
"You’re fragmenting our food safety inspection system," the aide said.
Despite overwhelming support for the amendment—some estimate there were 70 votes for the measure—the southern senators procedurally outmaneuvered the majority.
The Senate voted for cloture, which means that there are only a few more hours for debate and the senate can only consider "manager’s amendments," which are typically uncontroversial amendments that can be unanimously agreed to.
Because Cochran and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) both oppose the amendment, it likely will not come up for a vote.
"We’re pretty much screwed," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.