Catfish Controversy Roils Congress, Costs Taxpayers Millions

Is the catfish controversy the new bridge to nowhere?

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Catfish are released into a pond at a Little Rock, Ark., park in 2008.

It may be August recess on Capitol Hill, but a heated debate over wasteful spending and special interest groups—centering on the unassuming catfish—isn't over just yet.

The debate started with the 2008 farm bill, which called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take over seafood inspections, including catfish, from the Food and Drug Administration. It grew fiercer after a Government Accountability Office report in May found that the UDSA's new catfish inspection program cost taxpayers almost $20 million in its set up phase, without inspecting a single fish.

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In July, Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler proposed an amendment to the farm bill to fry the seemingly wasteful program.

Hartzler's amendment was similar to an amendment proposed in the Senate by Senators John McCain and John Kerry, who pointed out that few Americans have ever been sickened by catfish, and that the Centers for Disease Control calls it a "low risk" fish.

Their amendment was approved in June, but Hartzler's amendment in the House bill went nowhere.

Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford, whose constituents include catfish producers, helped efforts to keep the catfish inspection program in the farm bill.

"Advocates for Ms. Hartzler's proposal completely ignore the dangers posed by banned substances which have been discovered in shipments of catfish," Crawford told the Delta Farm Press of his decision to support the program.

It is unclear what substances Crawford was referring to. An outbreak of Salmonella-caused illnesses in 1991 believed to be caused by catfish was never clearly linked to the fish, according to GAO.

Producers of catfish argued that the new USDA program was needed because the FDA's inspection had been too lax.

But the FDA program is also much cheaper: The USDA estimates its new program would cost $14 million per year, while the FDA currently spends $700,000.

Crawford and the USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The five-year farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee last month, but its future—and the future of catfish—remains uncertain.

The industry advocacy group the National Fisheries Institute doesn't see the sense in spending more.

Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute, believes some members of Congress "bowed to special-interest pressure."  "There is no doubt the House Agriculture Committee has catapulted this program to 'Bridge To Nowhere' status," he said.

In Washington, the Bridge to Nowhere has come to mean any project fueled by wasteful government spending.

Former FDA food safety czar Dr. David Acheson agrees, writing on his consulting firm's blog last week that the whole debate is a "wasteful saga."

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at eflock@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

    Corrected on : Corrected 8/10/2012: This post initially stated that House Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. Frank Lucas told reporters he was “overjoyed” the USDA catfish inspection program remained intact. He was actually overjoyed the farm bill had passed out of committee. This version has been corrected.