Farm Bill Reveals Free Trade Tension

With the 2012 Farm Bill heading to the Senate floor, language in the legislation is pitting catfish farmers and Southern senators against free trade advocates. The debate in question has been sparked by catfish inspections, free trade agreements in Southeast Asia, and efforts by the Obama administration to create an Asia-Pacific free trade zone.

The Food and Drug Administration handle current inspections of fish imported into the United States. With a limited budget and limited manpower, the FDA only inspects a small percent of imported fish (estimated at 2 percent by Catfish Farmers of America).

During the farm bill debates, catfish farmers lobbied Congress to transfer regulatory power over catfish to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would tighten catfish regulations and, according to Catfish Farmers of America, better protect public health.

Opponents of this move, however, argue that it is nothing more than an attempt to block the importation of the Vietnamese pangasius fish, a species of shark catfish native to Asia. If the USDA takes over catfish inspection, pangasius importations would be immediately halted until the agency completes a lengthy certification process.

A potential ban on imported catfish could strain trade relations with Vietnam, which is a major importer of American beef and soy. In addition, critics of the move claim that U.S. might be exposed to World Trade Organization sanctions if they block Vietnamese fish.

The inter-agency transfer was approved in the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill, but critics, like Arizona Senator John McCain, may attempt to amend it out of the final legislation.

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Written by: Justin Ellison / Farm Plus Staff Writer