Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Food Safety Rules to Emege from Fight Over Imported Catfish

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The whiskered, bottom-feeding catfish is one of the lowliest creatures on Earth. But for months, catfish have been at the center of an intense Washington lobbying effort pitting domestic producers against importers.

At issue is how catfish will be regulated and whether Vietnamese imports pose a health risk to American consumers. U.S. catfish producers used a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to persuade Congress in 2008 to tighten regulation of the single species of fish, a program expected to incur $5 million to $16 million in start-up costs with its launch next year.

The battle has sparked threats of a trade war from Vietnam, which wants its fish excluded from the regulations. The Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Le Cong Phung, has called Congress hypocritical for changing the rules on catfish to give an advantage to domestic producers.

Under the farm bill passed in 2008, catfish inspections are moving to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has spent 18 months crafting regulations. The rules, which are still secret, might be approved by the Office of Management and Budget as early as Tuesday. All other fish remain under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration.

Domestic catfish producers argue that tougher regulation -- which would increase onsite inspections and testing -- would force foreign producers to adhere to safety standards more in line with those that domestic producers must follow.

"We are just looking to be on the same playing field," said Joey Lowery, president of the Mississippi-based Catfish Farmers of America.

But some aquaculture experts have jeered at the wrangling.

"It's laughable. Why single catfish out? No one is eating raw catfish sushi. This is a very, very low-risk product," said Byron Truglio, a retired consumer safety officer with the FDA's Division of Seafood Safety, who advised the USDA on its inspection program.

The catfish wars have been brewing since 2002, when Congress passed a farm bill barring Vietnamese fish farmers from labeling their fish as catfish. The Vietnamese fish is from the genus Pangasius; the law mandated that only fish in the Ictaluridae family, which is produced in the United States and is commonly called channel catfish, could bear the catfish label. The two fish have a similar taste.

"That fish and ours are as close taxonomically as a house cat and a cow," said Henry Gantz, former president of the Catfish Institute, a trade group representing domestic producers.

By 2008, when another farm bill made its way through Congress, Americans were eating slightly less domestically produced catfish than they had in 2002. But consumption of Pangasius -- which is typically called basa at fish markets -- had skyrocketed. Price was a factor. Wholesale, basa sells for $1.75 to $2 per pound, while channel catfish goes for a dollar more.

Domestic trade groups tried a new tactic. They argued that a more rigorous catfish inspection program was needed to improve foreign farming practices, especially in Vietnam. Though they had fought in 2002 to bar Pangasius from bearing the catfish label, by 2008 they did an about-face, calling it "imported catfish" that should be included in the USDA program.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R), whose home state of Mississippi is the nation's catfish capital, led the charge, helping to insert bill language that called for the USDA to include catfish and "amenable species." Cochran also provided a $16 million earmark.

The domestic producers cited food-safety concerns. The FDA has found banned pesticides and antibiotics in some catfish imported from Vietnam, but no deaths have been linked to imported catfish. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that fish in general account for 3 percent of the nation's salmonella-related deaths.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has faced intense pressure from all sides, has been charged with sorting out the issues. Vilsack declined to answer questions posed by The Washington Post. (USDA officials said that because the department is still developing the program, details are confidential.)

A draft copy of the rules obtained by The Post shows that the USDA decided that Vietnamese fish should be included in the new program, a move likely to generate fierce opposition from importers.

The draft also states that the catfish regulatory program would save an estimated 36 lives annually from salmonella-related deaths. The safety claims -- which are not supported by CDC data -- were ratcheted down in later drafts, according to sources familiar with the rulemaking work.

USDA officials would not say whether the safety claims are in the final version they submitted to the Office of Management and Budget.

If the rules are posted as expected this month, foreign catfish producers predicted fireworks.

"The industry is going to speak loudly," said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents foreign producers. "We will highlight some of the absurdities that account for this broad definition of catfish and the lobbying effort that was behind it."

Friday, February 12, 2010

New Jobs Bills

Bipartisanship fleeting as jobs bill proposed
Democrats pare version forged with the GOP
Globe Wire Services / February 12, 2010

The jobs proposal
What’s in
▸Hiring tax credits - Exempts businesses hiring unemployed workers in 2010 from the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax for those hires and provides an additional $1,000 tax credit for workers retained for a full year. Cost: $13 billion.

▸Highway programs - Reauthorizes the highway trust fund to use gasoline taxes to help state and local governments pay for highway and transit projects. Deposits an additional $20 billion into the trust fund.

▸Equipment write-offs - Permits businesses to write off equipment purchases as a business expense.

▸Build America Bonds - Expands the Build America Bonds program, subsidizing interest costs for bonds issued by states and local governments for large infrastructure projects. Cost: $2 billion.

What’s out

▸Tax extenders - Extending through 2010 a variety of popular tax breaks that expired at the end of 2009, including a deduction for sales and property taxes and a business tax credit for research and development.

Cost: $31 billion.

▸Unemployment assistance - Extending through May 31 assistance for the long-term jobless and a 65 percent health insurance subsidy. Cost: $3 billion.

▸Medicare payments - Giving doctors a seven-month reprieve from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments that would otherwise go into effect March 1. Extends other Medicare provisions. Cost: $10 billion.

▸Patriot Act - Extending for a year several provisions of the Patriot Act.

▸Farm aid - Help for farmers affected by heavy rains, floods, and other weather-related disasters.

Cost: about $1.5 billion.
The rapprochement lasted about four hours.

By evening, Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada had a new bill and a renewed message. Instead of supporting a plan that some said was bloated with special interest money, Democratic leaders proposed a stripped-down version they contended was strictly focused on the number one priority for Americans: jobs.

Gone were provisions sought by several industries, including health care and biofuel, and supported by senators from both sides of the aisle.

Gone, too, was a spirit of bipartisanship. Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa and Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, had earlier hailed the original draft as an essential two-party effort to respond to a troubled economy. “We believe they reflect a balanced set of member views and priorities,’’ the two senators said in a joint statement, which warned colleagues not to significantly alter the plan if they wanted bipartisan support.

The White House added, “The president is gratified to see the Senate moving forward in a bipartisan manner on steps to help put Americans back to work.’’

Yet, stung by criticism of several of the draft’s proposals, Democratic leaders balked. Their latest bill keeps several popular provisions, including a new tax break negotiated with Republicans for companies that hire unemployed workers and for small businesses that purchase new equipment. The bill also would renew highway programs and help states and local governments finance large infrastructure projects.

The bipartisan agreement is off. But Democrats said they now have a package focused solely on creating jobs, and they’re all but daring Republicans to vote against it.

“Our side isn’t sure that the Republicans are real interested in developing good policy and to move forward together,’’ said Senator Thomas Carper, Democrat of Delaware.

Said Reid: “Republicans are going to have to make a choice. I don’t know in logic what they could say to oppose this.’’

The original, bigger bill got a decidedly mixed reception at a raucous luncheon meeting of Democrats, many of whom were uncomfortable with supporting a measure containing so many provisions unrelated to creating jobs, including loans for chicken producers and aid to catfish farmers.

The centerpiece of Reid’s new bill is a $13 billion payroll tax credit for companies that hire unemployed workers. The idea, by Senators Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, would exempt businesses hiring unemployed workers this year from the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax for those hires.

It also would provide an additional $1,000 tax credit for workers retained for a full year and deposit an additional $20 billion into the federal highway trust fund - money that would have to be borrowed. There’s also $2 billion to subsidize bond issues by state and local governments for large infrastructure projects.

But Republicans are irate at the strong-arm tactics and said Reid had gone back on a deal reached with some of the Senate’s heaviest hitters, including minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“Needless to say, Senator Hatch is deeply disappointed that the majority leader has abandoned a genuine bipartisan compromise only hours after it was unveiled in favor of business-as-usual partisan gamesmanship,’’ said Antonia Ferrier, Hatch spokeswoman.

New Feed Study


UAPB feed study could help catfish farmers boost bottom line

AgFax.Com - Your Online Ag News Source

By: Bobbie Crockett

PINE BLUFF (February 11) – Catfish farmers in Arkansas and elsewhere have seen higher feed costs eat away at their profits. A 2009 feed study by the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff could help producers make better choices about fish diets.

Catfish farmers have been dealing with higher feed costs driven by higher soybean, corn and wheat prices. The previous five-year average cost of feed was $235 per ton, but in 2008 most farmers paid between $375 and $425 a ton. To try to reduce those costs, the Arkansas-based feed mill ARKAT Nutrition Inc. along with Aquaculture/Fisheries Center nutritionist Dr. Rebecca Lochmann, are testing traditional diets along with some new catfish feed formulations. Dr. Carole Engle, center director and aquaculture economist, is doing economic analysis on the results of the studies.

“Feed prices have been going up, but catfish prices remain static so farmers asked if we could use cheaper diets and still get good yield,” Dr. Lochmann said.

The pond study, conducted May 2009 to October 2009, focused on catfish that were fed three different 28 percent protein diets: premium, standard or sub-optimal.

The Aquaculture/Fisheries Center tested their performance to give producers good information with which to make decisions. Less costly, but still reliable feed could translate into an improved bottom line for fish farmers across Arkansas and beyond, Dr. Lochmann said.

According to study results, harvested fish that ate the premium diet, weighed more, on average, than fish that ate either the standard diet or sub-optimal diet. The average weight of fish that ate the standard diet was higher than the fish that ate the sub-optimal diet. However, all of the fish were of marketable size.

The most important finding in terms of profit, was that yield of fish that ate the premium diet was similar to that of fish that ate the standard diet. However, the yield of the fish fed the premium diet was significantly higher than the yield of those fed the sub-optimal diet.

At the beginning of the study, the estimated costs of the diets were $344 a ton for the premium; $317 a ton for the standard and $307 a ton for the sub-optimal. A partial budget analysis showed a savings of $91 per acre from using the standard diet rather than the premium diet.

“This study showed that you can cut feed costs somewhat and still maintain your profitability,” Dr. Lochmann said.