For months U.S. catfish producers have accused Vietnamese exporters of dumping cheaper and improperly labeled fish into U.S. markets. With the United States importing 1 million pounds of the Vietnamese fish (called tra or basa) per month, U.S. producers claim they're losing at least 10 percent of a hard-won market. As a result, prices for U.S.-raised catfish have dropped precipitously. In April 2000, U.S. producers got 77 cents per pound of catfish. Six months later, the price fell to 70 cents per pound and is still dipping.

One reason the price continues to plunge is that Vietnamese fish have been imported at an even quicker pace this year. Last year, 7 million pounds of Vietnamese fish were brought into this country. At year's pace, 20 million pounds will be imported.

American producers have many gripes with basa and tra, including the way it is packaged to imitate U.S. catfish. There have been reports that packaging has even carried pictures of channel catfish like those raised in Delta ponds. Channel cats are a completely separate species from basa or tra. This subterfuge has allowed Vietnam entry into a U.S. market that U.S. producers have spent millions of dollars building, says Hugh Warren, president of Catfish Farmers of America (CFA).

Warren says “unscrupulous importers, distributors and wholesalers” continue to pass off as catfish cheaper Vietnamese fish, even though it is from a family of fish different from that raised in the U.S. Delta. “It is illegal to import such mislabeled products; it is illegal to sell them in the United States.”

To combat the Vietnamese piggybacking on their advertising efforts, U.S. catfish producers want Vietnam to sell its fish using clear name distinctions. Pushing for use of scientific names or “Vietnamese catfish,” U.S. producers are backing a congressional bill that would make restaurants serving Vietnamese catfish state where the entree originated.

On July 17, it was announced that Vietnamese trade officials had agreed to change the name of its exported fish. Officials proposed the use of three names for tra (Mekong catfish, basa catfish or pangas catfish) and three for basa (basa, basa bocourti or bocourti). That move, it was hoped in many quarters, would dampen the increasingly caustic trade war between Vietnam and U.S. catfish producers. It didn't.

The public relations move, says Warren, was “a ruse.”

The CFA is now calling for President Bush to form a “joint federal-state enforcement task force to prosecute violators and coordinate enforcement of federal and state laws against mislabeled Vietnamese fish.”

Warren says the issue isn't whether Vietnamese fish should be allowed into the country, but how they're being marketed. If the Vietnamese fish were properly labeled, the CFA would have much less to complain about, he says. “I think we have the Vietnamese trade officials' attention, but we can't afford to wait for them to act. We will pursue every option we have to fix the problem, and we must fix it.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com