An amendment that would have allowed the Vietnamese basa fish to be labeled and marketed as catfish was defeated Dec. 18 in the Senate. Catfish farmers who say the Vietnamese copycat fish is unfairly displacing U.S. farm-raised catfish in the seafood market were closely watching the measure, which was rejected by a 68 to 27 vote.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would have repealed the language included in the 2001 Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations Act stating that only catfish produced in North America can be labeled as catfish.

President Bush signed the Appropriations Act, which remains in effect for one year, into law Nov. 30, 2001.

The defeat of McCain's proposed amendment, according to The Catfish Institute, is a major victory for the U.S. catfish industry. “It is important to note that we do not object to the importation of Vietnamese basa; we object to the use of the name ‘catfish’ for that product. That fish and ours are as close taxonomically as a housecat and a cow,” said Henry Gantz, president of The Catfish Institute in Belzoni, Miss.

Chip Morgan with Delta Council in Stoneville, Miss., said, “Tactically and strategically, those legislators wanting to repeal the catfish labeling provision made a huge mistake.

“After this vote overwhelmingly supporting catfish producers, there's almost a mandate for the Senate to support the language included in the House farm bill when we get to conference.”

Hugh Warren, executive vice president of the Indianola, Miss.-based Catfish Farmers of American, agrees, saying, “We are certainly excited over the potential that our industry has of getting language included in the next farm bill. The vote in the Senate on the McCain amendment simply shows how successful our Mid-South senators and representatives have been in presenting a realistic picture of the catfish industry against some rather severe and sensationalistic onslaughts to the contrary.

“The fact that this would restrict free trade with Vietnamese is ridiculous. Nothing restricts them from sending their fish here, just as long as it is not done dishonestly,” he said.

“Our industry is certainly relieved that the great majority of the Senate realized that the attack by Sen. McCain on the catfish industry was ill-founded.”

During the lengthy Senate debate on the proposed amendment, McCain repeatedly referred to the catfish industry's desire to protect its markets against Vietnamese basa fish as “protectionism.” In fact, McCain went so far as to say that “a certain special interest with enough lobbying money and enough special interest money and campaign contributions can get most anything done.”

Calling the earlier language allowing only U.S. catfish to be labeled as catfish “an underhanded way for catfish producers to shut out the competition,” McCain maintained the belief that the measure is a barrier to trade.

“This trade ban will raise the prices wholesalers and retail consumers pay for catfish, and Americans who eat catfish will feel that price increase. This is a price increase imposed purely to line the pockets of Southern agribusinesses and their lobbyists who have conducted a scurrilous campaign against foreign catfish for the most parochial reasons,” he said.

Taking exception to McCain's characterization of the U.S. catfish industry, Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., said, “This amendment cripples and potentially destroys the aquaculture industry in the state of Arkansas. This industry has been in distress over the last year because of the influx of Vietnamese fish mislabeled as catfish. The Vietnamese basa is not a catfish. It is a different species, it is a different order, it is a different fish.

“I voted for the Vietnamese Free Trade Agreement. I believe in free trade. I believe in fair trade. I also believe in accurate labeling and that the American people ought to know what they are buying,” he said. “I share Sen. McCain's belief that competition is good when open and a competitive market benefits out nation's economy and consumers. However, misleading consumers and mislabeling a product is wrong.

“To allow it to continue at the expense of an entire industry is unthinkable.”

Hutchinson added, “What is unfair is that our catfish farmers are being subjected to competing with an inferior product that simply adopts the name of a successful product and gains acceptance.

“What is unfair is these fish are being pawned off as catfish to unsuspecting American consumers at a time when the fears of unemployment and the reality of an economic downturn in the wake of Sept. 11 attacks are weighing heavily on the minds of Americans.

“It is not acceptable for us to sit back and watch as an industry which employs thousands is allowed to be crushed by inferior imports because of the glitch in our regulatory system.”


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.