$20M Wasted? Two U.S. Agencies Tasked With Inspecting Catfish

ABC News

Dick Stevens is a catfish legend in Mississippi.

President and CEO of Consolidate Catfish, Stevens owns one of the biggest catfish processors in the U.S. - in one day, he handles 400,000 pounds of fish.

He is also one of the driving forces for getting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect catfish grown in the U.S. and imported.

Critics call that a huge waste of millions of American tax dollars because that means two agencies are charged with inspecting catfish - the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration.

While the USDA inspects meat, seafood inspections have been conducted by the FDA.

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Though Stevens told ABC News he didn't want two U.S. agencies looking at the same food, there have been concerns in the past about whether the inspection of imported fish has been adequate.

"We would say this is a food-safety concern," Stevens said.

"We felt like we needed to do something to improve our marketing in the catfish industry. We felt like consumer confidence has been shaken a little bit, with some of the products that were adulterated," Stevens said. "We felt like our market was going away because people were worried about the safety of the product."

Stevens said the industry reached out to the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Services, even though the FDA already handled inspections, which he called "nonexistent."

"FDA will probably come through here once a year and then it will be more of a paperwork check," he said. "Now our particular company is inspected by the Department of Commerce."

Yet while the USDA has spent $20 million to plan inspections, it hasn't inspected a single fish in five years.

"Twenty million dollars would be a drop in the bucket compared to what the bureaucrats waste every day," he said. "But if it brings consumer confidence and it brings food safety to Americans, then it is well spent."

David Acheson, a top U.S. food-safety expert as well as a former FDA and USDA official, said there was little to worry about regarding catfish safety and the FDA should continue to be in charge of inspecting it.

"A catfish is a catfish is a catfish," Acheson said. "It's a safe food. … We shouldn't have two agencies inspecting the same fish."

Acheson said that in 2008, Congress decided that catfish should be the USDA's responsibility.

"The reason that was put out there publicly is because Congress deemed catfish was a high-risk food product. … But it isn't," he said. "The catfish farmers in the South, they've taken a hit economically because of low-cost imports. … We can certainly build an argument that the reason behind this was essentially a lobby that said what can we do to help protect the domestic catfish business."

Acheson said the law requiring two agencies to inspect catfish had little to do with what ends up on consumers' plates.

"It certainly isn't public health," he said. "It's about politics."

The law would make it more expensive for importers to do business. Importers have already grabbed 25 percent of the market and are the main competitors of American catfish growers.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who is responsible for adding the catfish law written into a farm bill, declined a request for an ABC News interview.

"I can understand the business pressures to try to protect the industry to try to protect jobs, protect their employees," Acheson said. "At the end of the day here, put the energies and the resources and the efforts where we've got risk and this is just not it."