Though the 2012 farm bill has been at the forefront of much discussion lately, the Government Accountability Office has stepped back in time, reviewing the provisions in the 2008 farm bill that directed the USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service, instead of the Food and Drug Administration, to issue catfish inspection regulations.
Findings by the GAO indicate that this provision has caused inefficient use of government inspection services and government dollars, and has caused a breach in the safety of seafood products, both domestic and imported.
In the report, titled "Responsibility for Inspecting Catfish Should Not Be Assigned to USDA," the GAO examined how the USDA-FSIS determined that Salmonella presented the primary food safety hazard in catfish, and the anticipated impact of FSIS's proposed catfish inspection program on other federal food safety inspection programs.
Lisa Shames, GAO's director of natural resources and environment, said catfish inspections were specifically targeted in the 2008 farm bill and assigned to the USDA, an example of what she called "fragmented" food safety oversight.
Shames said this fragmentation has led to errors in inspections, including the determination that Salmonella was most likely to cause contamination in catfish. But, Shames said data the USDA used to draw that conclusion was outdated.
Though the USDA FSIS has not officially released regulations based on their Salmonella research, the GAO report indicates that as soon as regulations are released, the FSIS will be responsible for catfish inspection, something the GAO says is inefficient.
The GAO report indicated that catfish inspection is already covered by the Food and Drug Administration, and additional oversight will do little to increase food safety.
"With the implementation of FSIS's proposed catfish inspection program, responsibility for overseeing seafood safety would be further divided and would duplicate existing federal programs at a cost," the GAO reported. Shames said the estimated additional cost for the USDA's inspection program is about $14 million.
The duplication would occur in three areas:
Hazard analysis plans. Between the FSIS and the FDA, the GAO contends the required hazard plans, which identify potential hazards and work to prevent them, are relatively the same.
Inspections. The GAO reports that three agencies—FDA, FSIS, and National Marine Fisheries Service—could inspect facilities that process seafood and catfish. This causes an overlap in responsibilities, which according to the GAO, FDA and NMFS officials said would not improve catfish safety and is "counter to the use of FDA's hazard analysis requirements."
Foreign Inspections. The Food Safety Modernization Act gives the FDA authority to establish a system to accredit third party auditors to perform inspections, including foreign governments, which will eliminate the need to inspect catfish after it is imported.
The GAO says that the Food Safety Modernization Act provides all inspection needed to ensure food safety for catfish.
"The federal government has an opportunity to enhance the safety of all imported seafood—including catfish—and avoid the duplication of effort and cost that would result from FSIS's implementation of its proposed program," the report said.
As a result of their findings, the GAO made a recommendation to congress that it repeal the provision in the farm bill that assigned catfish inspections to the USDA.