Vietnamese fish masquerading as U.S. farm-raised catfish will be forced to unmask under legislation signed into law April 1, 2002, by Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

Catfish sold in Mississippi must now be clearly labeled as to origin, whether sold wholesale, retail, or in a restaurant. The new law also requires distributors, processors and wholesalers of fish products maintain at least two years of sales records, which may be checked by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Under the labeling law, only catfish produced by U.S. growers in fresh-water ponds may be labeled as “farm-raised catfish.” Other labeling options include “river or lake catfish, a product of Mississippi,” “imported catfish,” or “ocean catfish.”

Imports of Vietnamese fish have increasingly displaced U.S. farm-raised catfish in the seafood market, prompting the catfish industry to push for a labeling law as a way to even the playing field.

The recently passed labeling law makes it unlawful for the term “catfish” to be used as a common name of fish, which would directly affect those species of fish produced in Vietnam and often marketed as catfish.

Catfish producer Austin Jones of Moorhead, Miss., says, “We are losing our market to foreign fish that are not grown under the same conditions that we have to grow our fish under. As catfish producers in the United States, we have to meet both EPA and FDA regulations, and U.S. farm-raised catfish are constantly inspected from the time they get to the processing plant to the time they get to the consumers.

“The fish being imported from Vietnam don't have to undergo the same inspections that ours do, so we don't really know that they are even safe for the consumers.”

The labeling law, he says, will give the U.S. catfish industry the help it needs to stay competitive in the seafood market. “When a consumer goes into a grocery store and sees both Vietnamese fish and Mississippi farm-raised catfish, I think he or she will choose the U.S. farm-raised catfish the majority of the time,” Jones adds.

Persons found guilty of violating the labeling law could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000, a stop-sales order, and/or the seizure and destruction of fish products.

All complaints against those suspected of violating the law will be filed with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. The Mississippi Department of Health will regulate the sale of catfish in restaurants.

A 2002 federal Food and Drug Administration appropriations bill also requires imported fish to be labeled as “basa fish,” instead of “catfish,” but its authority expires Sept. 30, 2002.