The U.S. catfish industry appears to be winning the war against Vietnamese imports one battle at a time. Succumbing to pressure from consumers, Piccadilly Cafeterias in Mississippi have pulled Vietnamese basa fish from its menus and replaced it with U.S. farm-raised catfish.

The Baton Rouge-based company said it made the move because its Mississippi customers “made it a bigger issue than it was in any other place.” Officials with the restaurant chain did not say whether it would continue to serve basa imports at their restaurants outside of Mississippi.

Piccadilly Cafeterias had previously admitted to a Mississippi newspaper that the “Southern Fried Fish” on its menu was basa, not U.S. farm-raised catfish as many consumers had mistakenly assumed. The company said it had not received complaints about the basa fish previous to their revelation, and in fact, some consumers had commented positively on the taste and texture of the Vietnamese fish.

“Returning to only U.S.-produced catfish symbolizes the restaurant's commitment to pleasing its customers,” said Brett Dixon, executive vice president of marketing for Piccadilly Cafeterias.

That's good news for catfish growers who believe the Vietnamese copycat fish is unfairly displacing U.S. farm-raised catfish in the seafood market and causing consumer confusion by the marketing misrepresentation of several different species of Vietnamese fish.

“The most significant thing is that businesses do pay attention to their customers and rightfully respond to concerns about not having U.S. farm-raised catfish as a menu choice,” said Hugh Warren, executive vice president of Indianola, Miss.-based Catfish Farmers of America.

Some of the backlash from Piccadilly's use of basa fish likely resulted from a highway billboard highlighting the issue. The Greenville, Miss., billboard, funded by individuals associated with the catfish industry, informed consumers that the restaurant's Southern fried fish is not catfish, but instead Vietnamese basa fish.

Imports of Vietnamese tra and basa (the names used for Vietnamese catfish) jumped from 2 million pounds in 1999 to 17 million pounds in 2001.

A Jan. 27 preliminary ruling by the U.S. Commerce Department should slow those numbers down. Finding that the Vietnamese fillets have been “dumped” into the U.S. market at price levels that range from 41 to 64 percent below fair market value, the department has begun assessing a tariff on the imported fish.

The Catfish Farmers of America and eight catfish processors filed the anti-dumping petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce in June 2002.

In the month before the preliminary ruling by the Commerce Department, industry insiders estimate that a surge of 8 million pounds of the Vietnamese fish found its way to the United States.

Warren said he believes the Department of Commerce decision will help bring much-needed relief to catfish farmers and processors.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.