A school of frenzied piranha devouring a hapless Amazon explorer couldn’t have roiled the waters more than the recent news of a university study indicating that Vietnamese basa fish was considered tastier than U.S. farm-raised catfish.

The Associated Press story, reporting that “not only are they as good for you as fish that are legally labeled ‘catfish,’ but basa were preferred in a taste test 3-to-1,” flew ’round the world with Internet speed.

A Google search coughed up more than 70,000 references. I didn’t check them all, but the story appeared in publications from Houston to St. Paul to San Francisco to Taiwan and Vietnam. “Vietnamese catfish just taste better,” one headline chortled. “Vietnamese catfish prevail over American variety in taste test,” another said. The story also made various radio and TV broadcasts.

Coming on the heels of the recent battle in Congress over basa being sold in the United States masquerading as catfish, and subsequent requirements for labeling the imports, the publicity surrounding the study was definitely not a day-brightener for American farm-raised catfish producers, who have spent millions of dollars for research and promotion of their product and creating a reputation for superior quality, versatility, and taste.

Further pouring salt on the wound, the study was conducted by a university in Mississippi, the state that’s far and away the nation’s number 1 catfish producer.

After recovering from the news bombshell, catfish industry spokesmen and various ag-related organizations were quick to respond.

“The reported findings don’t add up,” said Roger Barlow, president of the Catfish Institute at Indianola, Miss., noting that consumers “have voted with their wallets” to indicate their preference for U.S. farm-raised catfish, with more than 300 million pounds sold in 2004, compared to 9 million for the imported basa.

He cited a study showing 91 percent of consumers preferring U.S. farm-raised catfish over imports.

“It’s too bad that a study with such a limited sample size was distorted like that,” said Carole Engle, director of the Aquaculture Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and chairman of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries.

Ted McNulty, vice president of aquaculture for the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, also questioned whether the Vietnamese fish are safe, noting they are often grown in rivers exposed to untreated sewage and chemical wastes, while U.S. fish are grown in ponds, using filtered well water, and fed a high-protein, grain-based diet.

When the fish hit the fan, so to speak, the Mississippi university researchers were quick to say the study, which used a “grab sample” of fish and 58 untrained testers for blind tasting, was “preliminary” and that the issue “warrants a more comprehensive analysis.” A spokesman said the study was presented at an academic meeting “to spark academic interest and questions — not to become political or emotional.”

Which begs the question: Why publicize such a study in the first place?

Taste is highly subjective: One man’s yummy fois gras is another’s yucky goose liver. A superb merlot to one may be mouthwash to another.

To defame an entire industry based on the taste (?) of 58 people is little less than ludicrous.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com