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Farm Bill Faceoff: Catfish Farmers vs. Fisheries Institute Farm Bill Faceoff: Catfish Farmers vs. Fisheries Institute

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Farm Bill Faceoff: Catfish Farmers vs. Fisheries Institute

Last week we told you about how sugar growers and food manufacturers were fighting over the farm bill's sugar policies. Now, it's the catfish farmers versus a seafood trade association and agricultural groups clashing over a catfish inspection program. 

Catfish farmers say the changes would improve food safety. Critics argue that it's protectionism masquerading as food safety. 

The program in question would shift catfish inspection and oversight to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Food and Drug Administration. The change was part of the last farm bill and is set to be implemented next year and critics are trying to undo the change in this year's farm bill.

"For U.S. catfish farmers, food safety is our highest priority and we welcome stricter USDA oversight of both our domestic and imported catfish," Butch Wilson, the president of the Catfish Farmers of America, said in an email. "Whether a food safety incident results from domestic or foreign fish, the impact is the same: consumer confidence in all catfish plummets."

The Catfish Farmers of America spent $200,000 on lobbying in 2010 and $320,000 in 2011.

But critics say catfish farmers are supporting the program because it would essentially halt similar imports from Vietnam, which, they warn, could prompt retaliatory trade restrictions on American products.

"This is at heart a trade issue," said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute. "The domestic catfish folks aren't interested in a new regulator. They're actually interested in a new trade barrier."

Wilson maintains that "there are no trade issues."

The NFI has helped lead the push for repeal, with members contacting lawmakers and recruiting allies.  The NFI spent $340,000 on lobbying in 2010 and $991,000 in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Gibbons said some of the jump in lobbying spending can be attributed to fighting the catfish inspection program, but not the majority of it.

Critics also oppose the program because they say it is duplicative - the FDA has oversight of other farmed seafood - and expensive.

A group of senators, led in part by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), urged the Senate Agriculture Committee to repeal the catfish program, but the committee did not take up an amendment. McCain, Kerry and others have since introduced an amendment and critics of the program are pushing for a full Senate vote on that.

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