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L.A.-area congresswoman wades into catfish fight

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) says a catfish inspection program backed by Southern lawmakers would waste money and hurt California importers.

November 23, 2013|By Richard Simon
  • Congresswoman Lucille Royball-Allard, California's 40th Congressional District.
Congresswoman Lucille Royball-Allard, California's 40th Congressional… (United States House of Representatives )

WASHINGTON — Lucille Roybal-Allard has taken up an unlikely cause for a congresswoman from Los Angeles' landlocked Eastside: catfish.

She is among the leaders of an effort to reel in a new federal catfish inspection program that she says threatens to cost jobs in her district and ignite a trade war with Vietnam, an important trading partner with California.

Seafood is currently inspected by the Food and Drug Administration, but Congress agreed to subject catfish to a more rigorous inspection regimen, conducted by the Department of Agriculture.

Roybal-Allard, a Democrat from Downey, and other critics of the change say it would be a waste of money. They say it is being pushed by Southern lawmakers to protect their catfish producers from foreign competition.

The issue is at center stage on Capitol Hill because House-Senate negotiators are considering whether to repeal the new inspection program while they work to reach a compromise on a new farm bill. The program was mandated in the 2008 farm bill but has yet to be implemented.

The program also is emerging as a potential stumbling block in talks on a new trade agreement between the U.S. and about a dozen other nations, including Vietnam, a big catfish exporter.

Roybal-Allard's leadership on the issue took some of her colleagues by surprise. During a briefing on the farm bill last week for California Democrats in the House, she broached the issue.

"Catfish?" she said her colleagues asked. "Why are you interested in catfish? You're from L.A."

Her district includes seafood processors concerned that the new inspection program could lead to higher costs and limit supplies of catfish from abroad, including a fish from Vietnam known as pangasius.

Sam Galletti, president of Vernon-based Great American Seafoods, said that since he began importing pangasius in 2009, he's selling about 13 million pounds a year. "Imagine growing your business 13 million pounds on one category…. That helps me employ people," he said.

He sees no reason to change an inspection system that he says is working just fine. "Why duplicate it?.... In the end, it's the consumer who's going to end up paying the price," he said.

Roybal-Allard's efforts reflect the eclectic range of issues taken up by California's lawmakers. Some are new causes brought about as result of territory gained in last year's redrawing of congressional district boundaries.

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk), for example, has become a cosponsor of legislation to roll back the beer tax after gaining an Irwindale brewery in her district. And Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) co-founded the Congressional Creative Rights Caucus and has taken up the fight against piracy after gaining neighborhoods that are home to many filmmakers, songwriters and other artists.

In the catfish fight, Roybal-Allard says she is concerned not just about jobs, but also about potential economic damage to the state.

Vietnam, which regards the new inspection program as protectionism and has threatened retaliation against U.S. exports, was the 12th-largest destination for California agricultural products last year, valued at $187 million. About 1 in 3 catfish exported from Vietnam to the U.S. goes through the Port of Los Angeles, according to the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.

Supporters of the new inspection program say it is an important food safety measure they advocated after Chinese seafood was found in 2007 to include drugs banned in U.S. fish farming.

A bipartisan group of senators from catfish-producing states, including Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana, recently wrote to congressional negotiators to say the FDA hadn't done a good enough job of inspecting imported catfish.

But Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, disagrees. "The idea that FDA is failing is fiction made up to match a protectionist narrative," he said. "People aren't getting sick from catfish — period."

Critics of the new inspection program, however, face a battle. The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee and a key player in negotiations on the farm bill is Sen. Thad Cochran. He hails from catfish-producing Mississippi.

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