The amendment, which was introduced by Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., is aimed at preventing Vietnamese producers from using the term in marketing basa or tra fish in the United States. It was included in the Farm Security Act of 2001, which passed the House on Oct. 4.
Catfish Farmers of America officials estimate that Vietnamese producers and seafood importers – using catfish symbols and American-sounding brand names – have taken over nearly 20 percent of the U.S. market for catfish. Farm-bank prices have dropped below the cost of production for many farmers, as a result.
“This amendment will ensure that the term ‘catfish’ can only refer to the kind of fish we recognize as Delta-raised catfish,” said Berry. “It will prevent countries like Vietnam from engaging in the current practice of marketing a totally different product as catfish, which is undermining the efforts of the real catfish producers in Arkansas and elsewhere in the Mississippi Delta.”
The amendment, which was passed unanimously, says that the term “catfish” may not be considered to be a common or usual name for the fish Pangasius bocourti, or for any other fish not classified within the family Ictalariidae, for purposes of section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Berry, along with several other members of Congress from the Mississippi Delta, earlier this year introduced legislation (H.R. 2439) to require retailers of farm-raised fish to inform consumers of the country-of-origin of the fish at the point of sale.
Imports of “so-called” catfish, also known as basa or tra, from Vietnam have increasingly flooded American markets in recent years, with imports this year expected to be close to 20 million pounds. In 1998, imports of Vietnamese “catfish” totaled 575,000 pounds.
Although Mississippi accounts for the majority of U.S. catfish pond acreage, Arkansas was the first state to grow catfish commercially and now has approximately the same number of water acres in catfish production as Alabama.
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.
Catfish Farmer leaders have called the import and sale of Vietnamese basa labeled as ‘catfish’ in the U.S. markets “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.”
“We do not object to the sale of correctly labeled Vietnamese basa fish,” said Seymour Johnson, catfish producer from Indianola, Miss. “However, we do object to economic adulteration, species substitution and mislabeling that is now rampant on basa imports.”
CFA officials contend 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.