On Feb. 7, President Obama signed the long-awaited Farm Bill, ending a two-year battle over the direction of US agricultural policy. The 949-page bill touches on nearly every aspect of the US food system, from crop insurance to food stamps, including a controversial provision to protect a small and declining segment of American agriculture: catfish farmers.
As recently as 2005, American catfish farmers dominated the US market, supplying 80% of the nation’s catfish (pdf). A few years later, however, the market reversed. By 2012, catfish imports from Vietnam and other Asian countries made up 78% of the frozen catfish fillets sold in the United States.
The imported catfish, known as pangasius, are $1.50 to $2.00 cheaper per pound than the American variety of catfish. Lawmakers from southern states, where catfish are grown in artificial ponds, have been fighting to keep the imports at bay. The US catfish industry has shrunk by more than 60% (pdf) in the past decade, and the amount of land devoted to catfish farming has been cut in half.
The Farm Bill will make it more difficult for Asian catfish to enter the US market. The bill directs the US Department of Agriculture to finalize its catfish inspection program, which will apply rigorous standards for imported catfish. Importers will be required to open their processing facilities to USDA inspection, submit detailed sanitation plans, and set up an inspection system equal to that of the US. The program will also require re-inspection of catfish at US ports.
But critics of the USDA program say it’s a trade barrier in disguise. Le Chi Dzung, an economist at the Vietnam embassy in Washington, recently called it “a thinly veiled attempt designed to keep out fish from countries like Vietnam.” The issue has already complicated talks over a major trade agreement between the US and 11 Pacific nations.
Apart from trade disputes, many have blasted the program as wasteful spending. Catfish inspection is already carried out by the Food and Drug Administration—and at a fraction of the cost. The FDA program provides periodic catfish inspections for $700,000 per year, while the USDA program is expected to cost $14 million per year for continuous inspections. (A third program, run by the National Marine Fisheries Service, already offers fee-for-service inspections to seafood processors at no direct cost to taxpayers.)
The Government Accountability Office has concluded that the USDA program is wasteful and costly to taxpayers. Catfish are considered a low-risk product by the FDA, and more rigorous inspections would do little to improve food safety. Eliminating the program would save millions, according to the GAO’s analysis, “without affecting the safety of catfish intended for human consumption.”
It’s not the first time the US has tried to keep out foreign catfish. The industry lobbied for federal rules in 2002 that prevent most imported catfish from being labeled as catfish. Fish in the family Pangasiidae, which are primarily grown in Asia, must be labeled as basa, swai, or tra—even though they belong to the same order, Siluriformes, as American catfish.
But sales of pangasius have been on the rise in recent years in the US—even outranking US catfish in per-capita consumption. Tilapia, another imported white-fleshed fish, has also gained popularity at the expense of American catfish.
This time around, domestic catfish farmers are hoping to win back their market share in the name of food safety. The Farm Bill requires the USDA program to be up and running within 14 months—although that may be too ambitious. The program originated in the 2008 Farm Bill, but after five years and more than $15 million spent, the office has yet to finalize regulations or inspect a single catfish.
Bryon Truglio, retired chief of the FDA’s Seafood Processing and Technology Policy Branch, called the move “a win for US catfish producers, but ultimately, a loss for American taxpayers and consumers.” And he’s right. When it comes to Washington politics, efficiency has no constituency, but even catfish can garner support in Congress—as long as they’re American catfish.