McCain continues battle against catfish

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2016

By  Sid Salter

Politics is about nothing if not timing, and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, saw his opportunity and seized upon it while President Barack Obama was on a state visit to Vietnam in recent days.

McCain used the president’s visit to Vietnam and Japan as a springboard to undo Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s 2015 victory when Cochran was finally successful in forcing federal officials to implement new rules for catfish suppliers, requiring on-site inspections of catfish farms and processing plants for both domestic and foreign producers, mostly from Vietnam, to ensure they meet the same standards that have long been required in the U.S.

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Some 80 percent of all American seafood is now imported from China, Vietnam or other countries in the same region. McCain, long a defender of Vietnam and China’s seafood trade interests, angered U.S. producers when he said in 2014: “Vietnamese catfish remain popular with American consumers because it’s more affordable and cheaper to produce than domestic catfish grown in aquaculture ponds.”

Last week, over the strident opposition of Cochran and fellow Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, McCain and his Senate co-sponsors invoked the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015 catfish inspection program. The CRA law empowers Congress to review and overrule a regulation issued by a government agency. The Senate approved the McCain resolution by a vote of 55-43.

McCain’s proposal now faces U.S. House action and approval from Obama. That despite the fact that just days before McCain made his move, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) informed Senate staff that two incoming shipments of Siluriformes (catfish) products from Vietnam were found to be adulterated and refused entry into the U.S.

One shipment tested positive for gentian (crystal) violet and the other tested positive for malachite green and enrofloxacin and fluoroquinolone, FSIS confirmed through laboratory testing. These chemicals are not approved in the U.S. for use in fish meant for human consumption and their presence means the fish are adulterated by FSIS standards.

McCain and fellow U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) applauded passage of the resolution of to eliminate the USDA catfish inspection program. McCain claims the program is duplicative and costs taxpayers approximately $14 million a year and is a free trade barrier.

“The USDA catfish inspection office is an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars and a classic example of anti-free market protectionism,” said McCain after the vote. “This office — which GAO has repeatedly labeled as ‘wasteful and duplicative’ — serves no other purpose than to benefit a handful of special-interest domestic catfish farmers in Southern states at American consumers’ expense. It’s past time we finally send this duplicative, big-government program out to sea.”

But in a May 24 letter to the entire U.S. Senate, Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, expressed the influential agriculture group’s strong opposition to the McCain resolution:

“Implementation of this rule started on March 1, 2016. FSIS is currently inspecting domestic and imported catfish, and the program is working well for catfish, just as it long has for other meat, poultry and egg products. In fact, U.S. consumers are demonstrably safer under this rule. Just last week, FSIS detected a large shipment of imported catfish that contained a dangerous chemical and known carcinogen that is banned for use in aquaculture in the U.S. and most countries worldwide.

“American Farm Bureau Federation has long supported the implementation of the rule directing USDA Food and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspection of all domestic and imported fish that is called or considered ‘catfish.’ If Congress were to approve (the McCain resolution), it would impose a public health risk and set a contradictory new precedent by overturning a rule Congress itself demanded.”

McCain and Cochran have battled tooth-and-nail over the catfish issue for almost 20 years — with Cochran and later Wicker fighting to defend the interests of U.S. catfish producers and consumers and McCain fighting just as hard to open U.S. markets to Asian producers of imported Siluriformes fish and fish products.

Give this round to McCain, but something tells me this long war is far from over.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at