This time last year, U.S. catfish producers were getting 80 cents per pound. Thanks in large part to incredibly cheap Vietnamese fish imports, a pound of catfish is now going for 67 cents. That price, says Ben Pentecost, is likely to dip even further.

“As a producer, I feel the Vietnamese catfish have had a huge impact on U.S. producers' price for live fish. Some months, Vietnamese fish have taken up to 14 percent of the fillet market. It's so much cheaper that it has an effect on all of our catfish products. It's hard for us to compete with Vietnamese fish — just as it is with many other foreign-produced crops. Their labor is so cheap,” says Pentecost, a producer and president of Catfish Farmers of Mississippi.

The situations between U.S. catfish and rice producers and their counterparts in Vietnam are very similar, says Pentecost. “Regulatory issues we have — inspections, chemicals that have been outlawed here — aren't an issue in Vietnam. Over there, they can use pretty much anything and do anything they'd like.”

As with rice, is there any U.S. taxpayer-funded facility being built in Vietnam to process catfish? “Some of the same grant money rice farmers have been justifiably upset about has been used to improve Vietnamese harbor facilities. From that harbor, exports are going out. In that sense, we are helping them infiltrate our markets.”

Last year, volume of U.S. catfish dropped by 3 million pounds. The volume of imports for that time, meanwhile, converts to about 25 million to 27 million pounds liveweight, says Pentecost.

“We were that much long on supply. But without the Vietnamese fish, we'd have been short and the price should have been better. Supply and demand has a fine line of balance. It doesn't take a whole lot — especially at the low prices fish was already at — to bring prices way down. The Vietnamese are able to bring fish into this country at less than we can sell them for. That's shocking,” says Pentecost.

Recently, some loads of Vietnamese catfish have been rejected before reaching U.S. markets. Pentecost says this is due, at least in part, to mislabeling. The Vietnamese aren't supposed to label their fish as “catfish” anymore. The fish they're exporting isn't a true catfish. Called “basa,” the fish is a relative of catfish, but isn't what's raised in ponds all over the Delta.

Also, there are reports the Vietnamese have been copying U.S. producers' box logos and advertising language.

The Delta Congressional delegation is aware of what's going on, says Henry Gantz, president of the Catfish Institute. “We're well-pleased with the response they've shown. We have every indication our delegation wants to address our concerns,” says Gantz.

Hugh Warren, president of Catfish Farmers of America (CFA), agrees with Gantz but says the best option currently is to hold his cards close. “We're at the stage in developing information and reviewing options where we're being careful in letting out much information. We don't want to show our whole hand before we play it. There are some options that are premature to discuss,” says Warren.

One thing Warren and colleagues are looking at is the continuing increase in volume of Vietnamese fish coming into this country's market. The last March report from USDA says 1.2 million pounds had been imported that month — four times the amount for a year earlier.

“I don't have hard information, but we have gotten reports that some container-loads of Vietnamese fish have been detained and/or rejected due to mislabeling. The FDA has issued a document that states what name-styles and types are allowable. The containers in question obviously fell outside those FDA guidelines.”

Warren says he's encouraged that the product is getting a close look when coming into U.S. ports.

What about continuing reports on U.S. catfish being mixed with Vietnamese basa? “I don't have any hard information about (that). But we certainly have heard reports about it.”

Warren must tread a fine line between upsetting U.S. consumers' demand for low fish prices and the needs of Delta farmers. “We realize that free trade is a strongly held position within the United States. We have dealt with free trade issues before. For years fish products like tilapia or orange roughy have entered the U.S. markets and been sold.”

But the problem with the Vietnamese fish coming in is in many cases they're being portrayed as a substitute product. The Vietnamese are piggy-backing in markets that “our farmers have worked hard to create and establish through the funds generated by the Catfish Institute. These are markets that weren't there before and we feel strongly about an imitation product stepping in and taking advantage of those markets with extremely low prices.”

On one hand, there's an industry being developed and promoted by private industry in this country, says Warren. “Then our own government, for whatever reason, goes out and helps other countries develop their own method of (infiltrating) our markets. Their intentions (may be honorable), but that doesn't mean a thing (when U.S. farmers are going out of business everywhere).”

The industry takes this seriously and CFA is devoting all resources toward getting a positive resolution. “We have an organization — the Vietnamese Strategy and Planning Committee — that's working in cooperation with CFA to address this. There are representatives on the committee from several states. They've been making decisions for several months now.

“Most of our time is being spent in information gathering right now. We've spent a lot of time developing background information to support whatever the final solution is,” says Warren.


e-mail: david_bennett@intertec.com