Post by Eliza Barclay, The Salt at NPR Food (6/10/13)
The farm bill is expected to pass in the Senate on Monday night. And to the dismay of some, it likely won't include an amendment that would have eliminated a controversial program to keep a closer eye on a food product you probably weren't even worried about: catfish.
In an op-ed published Friday in Politico, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made the case for why $15 million a year to fund an "absurd" U.S. Department of Agriculture catfish office is a waste of taxpayer money. He and Jean Shaheen, D-N.H., sponsored the amendment in the Senate to kill the program. According to McCain and Shaheen, additional inspectors for domestic and imported catfish are nothing more than a gift to Southern catfish farmers seeking to burden their Asian competitors with extra compliance costs.
Here's the backstory: U.S. catfish farmers have been struggling for a while. Total acreage of catfish ponds has dropped from a high of 196,760 acres of water in 2002 to 83,020 acres in January 2013. As Kristofer Husted reported for us in January, lack of water, high temperatures and feed prices are part of the problem.
But more threatening, as far as the people still in business are concerned, are the foreign companies who now dominate 78 percent of the U.S. market for frozen catfish and similar species. How did these companies, mostly from Vietnam and China, manage that? They've found ways to raise catfish more cheaply and efficiently.