The U.S. Senate has passed an amendment to make “catfish” a uniquely American term and prohibit its application to imported fish.

The legislation is directed at what U.S. catfish farmers say is the mis-representation of imported Vietnamese basa fish as U.S. catfish and the subsequent loss of as much as 25 percent of the catfish market. In some cases, the basa fish is labeled with the same symbol used by U.S. processors and with brand names such as Delta Select.

The amendment to the 2002 ag appropriations bill stipulates that the Food and Drug Administration must insure that any fish sold in the United States as catfish must be in the taxonomic family of Ictaluridae.

Taxonomic charts show that the Vietnamese basa fish and U.S. channel catfish are all in the Siluriformes order, but are in different families, Pangasiidae and Ictaluridae, respectively.

To illustrate similar differences in mammals, cattle and yak are in the same order, Eutheria, and even the same family, Bovidae, but are different genus species, Bos taurus and Bos grunniens, respectively. In other words, the yak is more closely related to cattle than the basa fish is to the North American channel catfish.

“I can't imagine if a country wanted to export yak to the United States and label it as beef, that that would be readily acceptable to American consumers,” said Mark Keenum, chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who helped introduce the legislation.

Keenum noted that FDA “had been allowing the fish to be imported if it said basa catfish on the label. But invariably, as fish would come into our port of entry and into our distribution system, the word basa would fall off, and it would just be catfish.”

FDA apparently didn't see anything wrong with restaurateurs and retailers dropping the word basa, and leaving only the word catfish on the label or menu. And the Vietnamese government didn't believe there was anything untoward about representing the basa fish as a catfish, either. In fact, a taxonomic chart lists the basa fish as Vietnamese catfish.

Keenum said not allowing the basa fish to come into the country labeled as catfish would preclude someone along the distribution line from dropping the word basa and leaving the word catfish on the label. “They would have to practice deceptive tactics.”

Keenum noted that American distributors aren't averse to such tactics. He cited one instance where basa fish was labeled as Cajun Delight Catfish. “That's what we consider consumer fraud.” He added that several restaurants in the Delta serve basa fish, but refer to the fish on the menu as catfish.

Leland catfish farmer Johnny Dillard said U.S. importers of the basa fish tried marketing it under several different names, including grouper, with little success. It wasn't until they started calling it catfish that sales took off.

“They just took up the name to sell the fish,” Dillard said. “If you're going to protect the integrity of the product, you shouldn't be able to use a bogus name.

“The mislabeling has severely impacted the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry,” he said. “The Vietnamese fish has taken about 20 to 25 percent of our market.”

The Catfish Farmers of America point out that U.S. farm-raised catfish are grown in pristine ponds and fed granulated pellets consisting of grain and soybeans, while the basa fish are often raised in rivers of poor water quality, including some that contain raw sewage, and feed on debris.

“We want the product that we're selling to be distinguished from the product they're (basa fish marketers) selling,” Dillard said.

Another impact of basa fish imports has been a drop in price of catfish to U.S. farmers. But Dillard noted that the consumer has not benefited from the decline. “I have not seen a lower price in the supermarkets.”

The amendment was met with resistance from Vietnam's vice minister of fisheries, Ngyen Thi Hong Minh, who said, “it practically means to limit usage of the word catfish, used for over 2,500 species of catfish belonging to the order Siluridae, to only one specie of Ictaluridae punciatus, namely the specie almost exclusively raised by the U.S. catfish industry.”

Senate and House ag appropriation bills will now go into conference where differences will be worked out between the two bills. Once those differences are worked out, the Senate and House will vote on the passage of the conference report for the fiscal year 2002 ag appropriations bill. It then must be approved by President Bush.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.