U.S. catfish farmers thought they had pulled off a coup when they persuaded Congress a few years ago to require tougher federal inspections for the whiskered fish.
It's not that they were clamoring for more oversight; the idea was that the new inspection system would be a roadblock to rival imports from Asia, which U.S. producers have long argued are unsafe.
But in a lesson on being careful what you ask for on Capitol Hill, the move may be backfiring, and the domestic industry could soon be trying to undo what it accomplished just a few years ago. In a worst-case scenario, the domestic farmers could end up stuck with the tougher new inspections while the imports they were hoping to suppress are left with the status quo.
A recent government audit cited the new catfish program and its $30 million price tag as a prime example of government waste and duplication. Lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are fighting to overturn it
"It's everything that's wrong about the food-safety system," said David Acheson, a food-safety consultant and former assistant commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration. "It's food politics. It's not public health."
Catfish is big business, among the most popular fish in the U.S. Until recently, the market was the exclusive province of U.S. producers, located mostly in Southern states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama.
A rise in cheaper Asian imports over the past decade, most recently from Vietnam, has fueled a series of "catfish wars" between domestic and foreign producers.
After winning tariffs and strict labeling restrictions against the Vietnamese fish, the U.S. industry pushed through what could be a death blow with the inspections law in the 2008 farm bill. The law made catfish the only seafood in the U.S. to fall under USDA's purview, which traditionally has been meat and poultry. Seafood typically is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.
The change has potentially disastrous consequences for foreign catfish producers, because while the FDA does spot checks on a small sample of imports as they arrive, the USDA requires on-site inspections of production facilities. For countries like Vietnam, setting up an equivalent system could take years and effectively cripple their industry.
The provision slipped through with support from influential Southern lawmakers such as Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. But there was one catch: It left it up to the Agriculture Department to determine precisely what species qualified as "catfish."
That decision _ still pending nearly three years later _ has triggered a furious lobbying campaign and left the Obama administration struggling over how to apply the law.
U.S. importers _ with influential customers such as national restaurant chains and big-box retailers _ are howling in protest, arguing that snaring imports would drive up prices and saying it makes no sense to move one type of fish under USDA.
"You can't put feathers on a catfish," said Bobby Guidry, a Louisiana seafood processor and importer. "It's all political."
Vietnam, a major trading partner for beef and other U.S. goods, says it considers the change a backdoor trade barrier and has hinted at retaliation. McCain, the Arizona Republican who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and has since worked to improve U.S. relations with the country, says the law is "nothing more than a protectionist tactic funded at taxpayers' expense" to help special interests.
Critics are also quick to point out that the U.S. farmers for years have argued that the Vietnamese catfish species _ pangasius _ isn't really catfish, even winning a law in 2002 prohibiting Vietnamese exporters from labeling their product as catfish.
On the other side, domestic farmers _ struggling for years with high feed costs and other obstacles _ argue that Asian producers are using antibiotics and other substances banned in the U.S. for an unfair advantage.
Joey Lowery, an Arkansas catfish farmer and immediate past president of the Catfish Farmers of America, said it's inconceivable that USDA would decide to inspect only domestic catfish.
"The intent of this law is food safety, and there's really only one way to address it, and that's to inspect everything," Lowery said. "There is no Door No. 2."
Some food-safety experts agree that illegal additives in Asian imports are a concern. The advocacy group Food and Water Watch reluctantly supported the new catfish program, for example. The group's chief lobbyist, Tony Corbo, said that despite the political motives behind the change, the group believes USDA has a better system than FDA, which inspects only about 2 percent of the seafood it oversees.
But many experts question the wisdom of splitting seafood oversight between two agencies, saying the real problem is a lack of funding for inspections, regardless of the agency. In addition, as the government struggles to keep up with deadly food scares involving other products, catfish _ both domestic and imported _ has a good safety record, and the FDA says its limited sampling has not found a higher rate of banned substances in Vietnamese imports.
"This is about sensible spending of scarce food-safety dollars," Acheson said. "We just don't have the money to squander on nonissues, which in my book this is. ... Somebody should just pull the plug on it."
The USDA already has spent nearly $15 million developing the new program. It had been expected to issue a decision last month, but under intense pressure, it punted and asked for six more months of review. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a hearing this week that it may be 2012 before a final rule is issued.
Lowery wouldn't say what the U.S. industry's next move will be if the ruling doesn't go its way, although most observers predict the law would be quickly repealed.
"We're confident USDA knows what they have to do," he said. But, he added, "We'll play the hand we're dealt."