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Senate Approves Resolution to Rescind Catfish Inspection Programme

The Senate approved a joint resolution (S.J.Res.28) on 25 May disapproving and nullifying a December 2015 rule that transferred from the FDA to FSIS the inspection of imported and domestically-raised fish under the order Siluriformes, including catfish. This action, which still needs to be endorsed by the House of Representatives to become effective, came after a number of U.S. trade and industry associations urged lawmakers to rescind by much-maligned rule.

In addition to establishing a mandatory inspection programme for fish of the order Siluriformes, the rule required countries exporting such fish to the United States to provide prior to 1 March 2016 a list of establishments that currently export and will continue to export such goods to the United States. Countries also had to submit documentation showing that they have laws or other legal measures in place that provide authority to regulate the growing and processing of fish for human food and to assure compliance with FDA regulatory requirements.

If the programme is ultimately not repealed, during an 18-month transitional period that began on 15 April FSIS will select a subset of imported shipments of Siluriformes fish and fish products for re-inspection, which will include testing for species, chemical residues and Salmonella. Beginning on 1 September 2017, FSIS will re-inspect all shipments of imported Siluriformes fish and fish products just as it re-inspects all shipments of imported meat, poultry and egg products. FSIS is providing the transitional period to ensure that importers, customs brokers and other stakeholders have ample time to prepare and comply with FSIS’s mandatory re-inspection requirements.

The National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Food Marketing Institute asserted in a 23 May letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada) that the catfish inspection programme is of great concern because it establishes a non-tariff barrier against imported pangasius by requiring exporting countries to obtain an “equivalency” determination from FSIS if they wish to preserve their producers’ ability to export to the United States. The associations argued that because the FSIS equivalency process routinely takes five years and sometimes over a decade to complete “this will create for those producers an insurmountable barrier to the U.S. market.” They added that as a result of this action “in a single stroke more than a fifth of the “value white fish” supply in the United States – about 250 million pounds a year – will disappear.” Moreover, the associations highlighted that not a single case of Salmonella has been attributed to pangasius (or domestic catfish) since the establishment of the current FDA seafood regulatory approach in 1998 and expressed concern about “persistent calls” for the programme to be expanded to tilapia and shrimp, which suggest that the existing programme “is just the beginning.”

According to the letter, the Government Accountability Office has concluded that the catfish inspection programme will harm federal food safety oversight by fracturing seafood regulation between two different regulatory agencies and waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in the process, a fact emphasised in a separate letter sent by ten tax- and government waste-related organisations to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (Republican-New Hampshire). That letter asserted that USDA spent US$19.9 million to develop and study the catfish inspection programme and GAO subsequently found that it would cost the federal government an additional US$14 million annually to run it, compared to the less than US$700,000 that the FDA spent annually to inspect catfish.

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