House Lawmakers Fish for Relief from Catfish Regulations

Published July 29, 2016

In the wake of the U.S. Senate voting to lower trade barriers on catfish meat imported from other countries, a group of U.S. House lawmakers are blocking a vote on repealing food inspection rules currently in effect.

The House’s inaction leaves in place an Obama administration decision effectively protecting American agricultural businesses against competitors in other countries by increasing the costs of complying with trade regulations.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a rule on imported catfish meat that requires it to be tested for quality by USDA instead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—a federal agency whose mission statement includes the goal of “ensuring the security of the food supply”—before allowing the fish to be sold in the United States. FDA already inspects imported seafood.

USDA’s regulations on catfish imports are more stringent than FDA’s import regulations, and they are much costlier. FDA’s catfish inspection program costs taxpayers $700,000 per year, but the USDA regulations will cost taxpayers $14 million annually, plus an additional $20 million in one-time costs.

In June, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter signed by nearly 200 House lawmakers to senior legislators in the chamber calling on House leaders to use the Congressional Review Act to end the USDA Catfish Inspection program and return the inspection responsibilities to FDA.

‘Concentrated Benefits’

Jerry Ellis, a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, says the fight over catfish-import inspections is an example of the conflict between free trade and protectionism.

“This kind of regulation is a great example of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs,” Ellis said. “The benefits of the regulation are concentrated on catfish farmers in a few Southern states, who gain protection from foreign competition. The costs are spread among consumers in all 50 states.”

Ellis says protectionism is not always a partisan issue.

“The divisions are more regional than partisan,” Ellis said. “A legislator’s position is likely to depend on whether he or she has catfish farmers or seafood importers in his or her state or congressional district.”

A ‘Loser’ Program

Darren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation, says if lawmakers don’t lower trade barriers by choice, those obstacles will be removed through international legal action.

“It’s important to remember that this program will be a loser when other countries challenge it within the World Trade Organization, because the other countries will almost certainly win,” Bakst said. “Then they’re going to be able to retaliate against the United States by going after other agricultural interests. We might be helping some small special interest now, but you might end up hurting a lot more folks in the long run by pushing this program.”

‘Embarrassing’ Resistance to Trade

Bakst says President Barack Obama and the majority of Congress support returning the program’s responsibilities to FDA.

“President Obama has made it clear he would be in favor of getting rid of this program,” Bakst said. “The Senate has passed the resolution. … It’s going to be the House that’s the obstacle in addressing cronyism. That is embarrassing.”

Elizabeth BeShears ([email protected]) writes from Trussville, Alabama.