Consumer safety put at risk with Senate vote

Published 7:00 am Thursday, June 2, 2016

Catfish is a source of pride for Mississippians. With 185 catfish operations supporting approximately 10,000 direct and indirect jobs, our state is the country’s leading producer of catfish.
In Mississippi, we stand by the high quality of our product. When Americans buy farm-raised catfish from producers here at home, they can be confident that it is safe and healthy.
That is not always the case for catfish from foreign producers, who are not subject to the same strict inspections as domestic catfish producers. Just this month, Food Chemical News reported that two recent shipments of catfish from Vietnam were found to be adulterated. These shipments contained harmful chemicals and substances, including carcinogens linked to cancer.
The new inspection program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was fully implemented last month, successfully stopped these contaminated catfish from reaching Americans’ dinner tables. The program worked as Congress intended in both the 2008 and 2014 farm bills when it transferred catfish inspections from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to USDA. Under the old system, FDA inspected less than 2 percent of catfish coming into the United States. That means more than 98 percent of imported catfish went to U.S. restaurants and supermarkets unchecked.
Simply put, FDA’s inspections were insufficient to protect Americans’ health and well-being. For years, catfish imports have been found to contain heavy metals, illegal antibiotics, and carcinogens. Estimates indicate that putting the inspection program under USDA – where all catfish imports will be screened – will prevent 175,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. population. This fact alone should merit using USDA’s more rigorous inspection standards.
I am disappointed that the Senate, acting on outdated information, recently passed a resolution of disapproval against the new USDA program in favor of returning catfish inspections to FDA. I strongly disagree with the proponents of this misguided resolution, who wrongly believe that the USDA program is duplicative and costly. These claims are just not based on the facts.
Now that FDA is no longer inspecting catfish, USDA is the sole agency authorized under the law to do so. At $1.1 million per year, the new inspection program is hardly a glutton of government funds. Only a few weeks ago, the Senate approved and I supported $1.1 billion in emergency funding to protect Americans from the Zika virus. Why is it unreasonable to spend one-tenth of one percent of that amount stopping catfish imports that could pose serious health risks?
I will continue to fight for consumer safety and the equitable application of food standards on U.S. catfish producers and their foreign counterparts. Those who adhere to stringent safety protections should not be put at a disadvantage by those who do not. The Government Accountability Office is currently studying the efficiency of seafood inspections, including the USDA inspection program. It is important for the public to learn the results of this study before the House of Representatives considers the resolution recently passed by the Senate.
After all is said and done, Americans should be able to buy catfish in the United States with the knowledge that it is safe to eat.
Current law provides this assurance. Going back to a program that puts Americans’ health at risk just does not make sense.

By Senator Roger Wicker

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