U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) today encouraged the head of the Food and Drug Administration to work with her federal counterparts to implement a catfish inspection program that ensures foreign imports are safe for consumers.
Cochran addressed the catfish inspection issue, as well as impending menu nutrition labeling regulations, during a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to review the FY2014 budget request for the FDA. In addition to serving on this subcommittee, Cochran is the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Cochran told FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg that catfish producers in Mississippi and other states believe imported fish should be held to the same inspection, certification and labeling standards applied to domestically-produced catfish. He asked about the extent to which the FDA can adequately monitor and inspect the increasing volume of fish imported into the United States.
"I know it may be complex and challenging but a lot of producers, and those who are in the catfish business here in the U.S., are worried that they are unfairly put at an economic disadvantage as compared to foreign importers," said Cochran, who was instrumental in writing a 2008 Farm Bill provision that transferred imported catfish inspections to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hamburg testified that catfish inspections are "a particular area of some regulatory complexity." The Commissioner said, "That process is still in transition, and until the FSIS at USDA fully takes it over we are continuing to provide oversight in that area, as well. We work with our partners to try to ensure the safety and quality of the seafood that Americans eat wherever it comes from."
"We hope that inspection process can be resolved at the earliest possible date," Cochran said.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report titled, "Seafood Safety: FDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Imported Seafood and Better Leverage Limited Resources" (http://1.usa.gov/WsXxNG), underscored the lack of sufficient food safety inspections for imported seafood, including imported catfish. It found that only about 2 percent of imported seafood is currently inspected. Even at that minimal level, there were health and safety violations found in 482 shipments of imported catfish products between 2002 and August 2010.
Cochran also asked Hamburg about FDA implementation of an Affordable Care Act (health care law) mandate for restaurant and other establishments that serve food to provide caloric information on their menus. He asked what type of establishments would be subject to these new federal regulations.
"I understand the Food and Drug Administration is having some difficulty in determining how to require menus to show nutritional information for the public. Food retailers in Mississippi have expressed some concerns about how this may affect them and how they are supposed to comply," Cochran said.
Hamburg says her agency is working to determine what sort of businesses or venders will be defined as "restaurant-like" and subject to the proposed regulations. The FDA issued a proposed rule in 2011, but the final regulations have been delayed as many non-restaurant businesses have raised concerns about the mandate.
The Obama administration has requested $2.6 billion in direct appropriations for the FDA in FY2014, which is $174 million more than the FY2013 enacted level including sequestration.