NTU Questions Inaccuracies in NPR's Marketplace Catfish Coverage

Dear Mr. Ryssdal,

I am writing in regards to your segment entitled “Checking In With the Catfish Economy” on June 8, 2016. Your conversation with Mr. Townsend Kyser of Kyser Family Farms fell short of the high standard of informative and balanced reporting listeners have come to expect from the ground-breaking Marketplace programming.

As I listened to the segment, I heard a number of inaccuracies conveyed in the course of the discussion, and little reference was made to another perspective on the issue. I consider this a missed opportunity, not only because listeners gained little fact-based insight, but also because the truth about the catfish inspection program is a fascinating (and oftentimes outrageous) story of intersecting parochial interests, probable World Trade Organization violations, complex legislative procedures, and government waste that Marketplace would typically be so good at unraveling.

At “only” $14 million a year, perhaps a drop in the bucket compared to the broader scope of the federal budget, the catfish inspection program nonetheless warrants scrutiny from those concerned about good governance. It is a classic example of how powerful legislators can obtain preferential carve-outs for constituent industries on the backs of consumers and less well-connected producers – and how hard it is to roll back bad policies. For these reasons, despite our different perspectives on the size and role of the federal government, National Taxpayers Union (NTU) and U.S. Public Interest Group (U.S. PIRG) included the program as a potential source of much-needed budgetary savings options in our past joint “Toward Common Ground” report, and we’ve even testified together on the subject before the Office of Management and Budget.

Your reporting and the associated story online implied that imported catfish suffered from a lack of regulations, even going so far as to state that S.J. Res. 28 would “end catfish inspections of foreign catfish.” This failed to mention that imported catfish was previously - and would again be - subject to the very same inspections and standards that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) applies to all other seafood and seafood imports. The segment also neglected to point out that the FDA program worked exactly as an inspection system was supposed to and found reason over the years to reject certain seafood imports, including catfish.

Additionally, it’s noteworthy that the Centers for Disease Control still regard commercially raised catfish to be a “low risk” food. Further, Mr. Kyser inaccurately argued that USDA inspections for catfish somehow ensured “no special treatment,” creating a level playing field in the catfish market. Instead, the new regulations do exactly the opposite: setting catfish apart from all other consumer fish and seafood goods already inspected by the FDA. It would have been more accurate to point out that when Mr. Kyser spoke of the need for more regulation in the catfish industry, he really meant that there was a lack of trade barriers that would favor his product.

Had the story properly covered more than the one perspective from a business with much to gain from USDA inspections, listeners might have learned that the Government Accountability Office has highlighted the program no fewer than ten times as being duplicative and unnecessary. It also bears mentioning that the result of the USDA catfish inspection program would increase costs and give fewer choices to consumers.

Finally, one very interesting facet of the issue, is the fact that the USDA catfish program might be repealed via the Congressional Review Act (CRA). If the CRA resolution makes it through the House of Representatives to the President’s desk, this would mark only the second time that this process has been successfully used. Created as part of the 1996 “Contract with America,” the CRA has thus far only overturned one other rule: the Clinton Administration’s Department of Labor ergonomics proposal. At the time in 2001, Republicans held the House, Senate, and Office of the President, making it comparatively easy to be signed into law. Were the pending catfish CRA to succeed with bipartisan backing in a divided government this would make S.J. Res. 28 and the fight to repeal this wasteful program all the more remarkable.

Thank you for giving this issue full consideration and I hope that you will spare some time to follow up on the other key aspects of the issue outlined here in future broadcasts.


Nan Swift, Federal Affairs Manager   

(This letter has also been submitted to Marketplace via email.)