Catfish regulations: What’s the catch?

Among the many fights brewing over the 2012 Farm Bill, one is a debate over a seemingly small provision that would charge the Department of Agriculture (USDA) with catfish inspection to ensure food safety. At $14 million a year, the program’s costs are trivial compared to the rest of the bill, estimated at $957.7 billion. Nevertheless, it is worth asking what problem this program is trying to solve.

Rather than reducing the number of cases of food poisoning, this rule would likely reduce or eliminate competition from foreign catfish producers. If implemented, the USDA inspection program would impose high additional costs on foreign catfish producers by requiring them to initiate prohibitively expensive “equivalence” programs to be eligible to trade with the United States. In effect, the USDA program would erect trade barriers for imported catfish.

Emblematic of the overall bill, the Farm Bill’s focus on the catfish industry’s narrow interests comes at the expense of the American public. In addition to the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on an ineffective inspection program, increased trade barriers on imported catfish will lead to higher prices for consumers at grocery stores. Catfish-exporting countries are likely to retaliate by imposing barriers on U.S. exports, hurting many successful U.S. businesses.

Beyond limiting competition — which raises prices for consumers — the USDA’s program is a waste of money. All catfish, both domestic and imported, are already inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and most domestic processors are under additional intense inspection from the National Marine Fisheries Service. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog agency, USDA inspections will duplicate existing government programs and will not improve consumer safety.

In fact, GAO listed the USDA’s catfish inspection program in its report on duplicative and wasteful efforts within the federal government. The $14 million-a-year USDA inspection program would be far more expensive than the FDA’s inspections, which cost $700,000 per year. Additionally, the risks of food poisoning from catfish are very low, with only one instance of Salmonella outbreak linked to catfish in the past 20 years. Even then, the link was inconclusive.

USDA has little expertise in seafood safety, which is overseen by FDA. USDA is traditionally responsible for meat, poultry and processed eggs. As Dr. Richard Williams and I pointed out in a recent article, USDA’s analysis betrays its ignorance on seafood safety. Its key assumptions on food poisoning threats from catfish are based on research on chickens, rather than fish. USDA justifies its assumptions by stating that comparing catfish to chickens may be more plausible than comparing them to cattle or hogs. As a consequence, USDA greatly overestimates the risk of food poisoning from catfish.

Catfish imports have grown over the past decade from two percent of the total U.S. catfish market to almost a quarter, but there has not been an increase in the number of food-related illnesses caused by catfish. This policy would do nothing to improve food safety for consumers. Instead, it provides domestic catfish producers with unfair protection from competition, leading to higher prices for Americans.

Sherzod Abdukadirov is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.