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Agriculture: Catfish Inspection

Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill assigning it responsibility for examining and inspecting catfish, GAO is no longer asking Congress to consider repealing those provisions to avoid duplication of federal programs. However, by addressing the recommendations in GAO’s September 2017 report on seafood safety, the Food Safety and Inspection Service could strengthen its new catfish inspection program.

Action:

Repealing provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill that assigned the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service responsibility for examining and inspecting catfish and for creating a catfish inspection program may avoid duplication of federal programs and save taxpayers almost $3 million dollars annually. However, in the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress reaffirmed its decision to assign responsibility to FSIS, and in April 2016, the Food Safety and Inspection Service assumed full responsibility for the inspection of catfish after coordinating the transfer with the Food and Drug Administration. GAO reviewed the coordination between the two agencies and the extent to which they were leveraging each other’s resources to ensure the safety of imported seafood, including catfish.

Progress:

As of September 2017, Congress had not repealed provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill assigning USDA responsibility for catfish inspection, as recommended in GAO’s May 2012 report. Rather, in the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress reaffirmed its commitment to assigning USDA this responsibility. In addition, Congress required USDA to coordinate with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to execute a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would, among other things, ensure that inspections of catfish conducted by USDA and FDA are not duplicative and provided USDA a timeline for issuing final program regulations and implementing the program. 

In April 2014, FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) signed an MOU to improve interagency cooperation on food safety and fraud prevention and to maximize the effectiveness of personnel and resources related to the examination and inspection of catfish. In December 2015, FSIS issued the final rule for the catfish inspection program and significantly reduced its 2011 estimate of the program’s annual cost to the government from about $14 million to about $2.6 million. In March 2016, FSIS assumed responsibility for the inspection of domestic catfish. FDA ceased all domestic regulatory activities involving catfish and also ceased inspections of foreign catfish processors. It discontinued screening catfish imports in April 2016, when FSIS assumed that task. In 2016, USDA indicated that it would not know the actual cost of the catfish inspection program until the program was fully implemented. In fiscal year 2017, FSIS estimated that the full implementation of the catfish inspection program in fiscal year 2018 would cost $8 million. However, there is no funding for the program in USDA’s FY 2018 proposed budget.

Because the USDA has implemented provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill assigning it responsibility for examining and inspecting catfish, GAO is no longer asking Congress to consider repealing those provisions.

In September 2017, GAO reported on how FSIS helps ensure the safety of imported catfish from unsafe drug residues and ways the agency could strengthen its efforts. GAO also reported on the extent to which FDA and FSIS coordinate their imported seafood oversight efforts. GAO recommended, in part, that FSIS work with other countries that export catfish to the United States to test for drugs that are of concern to the agency. FSIS responded that its current policy already addresses this recommendation because FSIS requires catfish-exporting countries to provide information using the Self-Reporting Tool—a standardized questionnaire—on the drugs they test for. However, because the exporting countries themselves determine which drugs they will test for, and because FSIS will not test all catfish imports, it is possible that FSIS may not be aware of unsafe residues from drugs of concern to the agency in imported catfish. GAO therefore disagrees with FSIS and believes that FSIS should require that foreign countries test for all drugs of concern to FSIS. 

GAO also recommended that FSIS staff visit at least a sample of foreign fish farms whose catfish are exported to the United States to determine the conditions under which catfish are being raised, including the drugs being used. FSIS partially agreed with this recommendation, indicating that it had not yet had the opportunity to conduct on-site verification audits of foreign catfish inspection programs. GAO is aware that FSIS had not yet conducted such audits, and GAO’s report discusses the timing of those audits once FSIS receives the required information and documentation from foreign governments. However, GAO continues to believe that it is important for FSIS to visit at least a sample of catfish farms as a routine matter instead of relying on a review of documentation describing a foreign country’s fish farm oversight program.  

Finally, GAO recommended that FDA and FSIS coordinate on, among other things, developing drug residue testing methods. Without this coordination, the agencies do not have reasonable assurance that they are consistently protecting consumers from unsafe drug residues. FDA agreed and FSIS partially agreed with this recommendation. Nevertheless, FSIS stated that it fully intends to implement the provisions of the MOU with FDA on coordinating on testing methods and that it also intends to enhance residue testing coordination through other interagency mechanisms. GAO believes the recommendations should be implemented.

Implementing Entity:

Congress
  • portrait of
    • Steve D. Morris
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • morriss@gao.gov
    • (202) 512-3841