The Modesto Bee / AP
By Ben Evans, Associated Press Writers
July 15, 2009
Washington — Some prominent Senate Democrats are fighting a bid by the U.S. catfish industry and its Southern allies on Capitol Hill to impose new inspections on fast-growing Vietnamese imports of the fish.
In a letter dated Wednesday, eight senators – including Dick Durbin of Illinois and John Kerry of Massachusetts – warned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that he could spark a trade war if Asian fish are included in a new inspection regime that was pushed through Congress last year at the urging of U.S. producers.
The senators said it wasn’t their intent to include the Vietnamese fish in the new system when it was passed in last year’s massive farm bill. Doing so, they wrote, would serve as a "de facto ban on exports from key trading partners."
"Such action may prompt retaliatory measures against U.S. exports" of other products, the senators wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
The domestic catfish industry, which is struggling against the cheaper imports, says better inspections are necessary to ensure safety.
But Vietnamese officials and their U.S. distribution partners say the new system is aimed more at restricting foreign competition.
The lawmakers signing the letter largely represent states with distribution companies that stand to lose business from new trade restrictions, or states with large industries that could get caught in the crossfire, such as the beef industry, for which Vietnam is a major export customer.
The letter’s other signers include Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. One Republican signed, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Congress passed the new inspections requirement with strong support from influential Southern lawmakers who represent the domestic catfish industry, which raises the fish in ponds across the Mississippi Delta, mostly in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. The farm bill singled out catfish as the only seafood to be regulated by the Agriculture Department, which traditionally oversees only beef, pork and poultry products.
Vilsack’s decision is expected soon, but a draft recommendation being circulated at the agency calls for the Vietnamese fish to be included.