When is catfish not catfish? When it's Vietnamese basa fish, according to Catfish Farmers of America officials, who contend that mislabeling of the latter as “Delta Select” and other American-sounding brands is costing their industry millions of dollars.
Over the last 30 years, U.S. farmers have spent nearly a billion dollars developing and promoting farm-raised catfish as a wholesome product that is grown under environmentally controlled conditions. Vietnamese imports threaten to wipe out that investment and destroy the U.S. industry, according to CFA.
For most of those 30 years, U.S. catfish farmers have been able to fend off attempts by Brazilians and other foreign food fish producers to make inroads into their markets by cutting prices. Two years ago, Vietnamese exporters began using a new marketing ploy.
Labeling their basa fish with the same catfish symbol used by U.S. processors and with such brand names as “Delta Select,” the Vietnamese gradually began displacing more and more U.S. product to the point that basa fish now make up more than 20 percent of U.S. catfish sales.
Representatives of the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry have met with congressional leaders and officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And, while FDA officials reportedly promised a response, little has been done to stem the tide of Vietnamese imports, according to the Catfish Farmers of America.
“American consumers do not reasonably expect food products that are not in the same family or species to be labeled alike,” says Seymour Johnson, chairman of the CFA's Vietnamese Imports & Strategies Committee and a catfish producer from Indianola, Miss.
“The import and sale of Vietnamese basa labeled as ‘catfish’ in the U.S. markets is one of the most blatant acts of food trade misconduct since imported kangaroo meat was substituted for ground beef in some products in the early 1980s.”
Recently, CFA proposed that Congress consider making the name “catfish” an exclusive American labeling term and prohibit its use on imported fish products.
“We do not object to the sale of correctly labeled Vietnamese basa fish,” Johnson said. “However, we do object to economic adulteration, species substitution and mislabeling that is now rampant on basa imports.”
CFA officials note that domestic catfish are raised in pristine and closely controlled environments. The ponds are composed of aerated and circulated well water. The fish are fed granulated pellets consisting grains composed of soybean and corn.
In contrast, the Vietnamese basa fish are raised in the Mekong River, one of the most polluted watersheds in the world. Basa, which are frequently grown in cages beneath Vietnamese houseboats, are exposed to many unhealthful elements, including raw sewage.
“The economic damage to U.S. catfish farmers and processors is caused by inaccurate and misleading labeling on the part of Vietnamese fish exporters,” said Sen. Tim Hutchinson in a recent letter to President Bush on behalf of the CFA.
The two U.S. senators from Mississippi, which accounts for more than half the U.S. farm-raised catfish acreage, have also weighed in on behalf of their farmers, calling on the Food and Drug Administration to force the Vietnamese to stop mislabeling their product.
“To allow a country to include the name ‘catfish’ on labels of a fish product that is not even in the same family as catfish, is an injustice not only to the American consumer who is being deceived, but also to the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry,” they said in a letter to FDA officials.
CFA members, as well as their congressional allies, fear that the survival of many small and medium-sized farming operations and processing companies is at stake as well as jobs in some of the most economically underdeveloped parts of the American South.
Concerns also involve the consumers right to know and be fully informed on food labels of a product's contents. The Vietnamese mislabeling leads to consumer confusion and a general breakdown in confidence in the America catfish product.
“It is urgent that the government take timely action to prohibit Vietnamese basa fish from being labeled and marketed in the U.S. as ‘catfish,’” states Johnson. “The fundamental rights of consumers and the economic stability of many farmers are at stake.”