« July 2012 Table of Contents Pin It

Top Species: Pangasius

Farmed whitefish’s popularity keeps building

By Joanne Friedrick
July 05, 2012

It cracked the Top 10 per-capita seafood consumption list a few years ago, marking its rise in popularity, but pangasius is still working on becoming a marquee fish due to its lack of solid name recognition and continuing fallout from its bad press over the fight with domestic catfish.

Just back from visiting pangasius farms in Vietnam, Chris December, president of QVD Aquaculture in Bellevue, Wash., says one of the biggest current issues is the shrinking credit market for seafood suppliers in Vietnam. 

“It makes it difficult to keep a business growing when credit is shrinking,” he says. Banks in Vietnam are re-evaluating their portfolios. If credit is limited or cutoff, he says, the immediate impact is that pangasius farmers can’t buy feed for their fish. Farmers either go out of business, he says, or have to find partners who can provide the capital that banks aren’t willing to loan.

While December anticipates some impact on supply, he says it’s difficult to pin down the numbers because farmers are reticent to divulge just how many fish are in the ponds. “We rely on feed sales to predict what will come out of the water,” he says.

Supply is fluctuating, but December doesn’t see any prolonged shortages. In 2008, Vietnam produced more than 1.1 million tons of pangasius, but those numbers were expected to fall to about 800,000 tons in 2011 (according to Dec. 5, 2011 SeafoodSource.com article).

Volume isn’t the focus for Clear Springs Foods, which offers value-added retail pangasius products as part of its portfolio, says Alan Kahn, VP-marketing for the Buhl, Idaho-based company.

Marketing it as swai, Clear Springs sells Citrus Sesame, Lemon Citrus and Panko-Coated fillets in 4-ounce and 6-ounce sizes.

Clear Springs began offering swai about two years ago. “We were looking for another species [aside from the company’s trout] that wasn’t widely distributed in the United States and that we could add value to and that would compete with other whitefish varieties,” he explains.

Clear Springs settled on using the name swai, but Kahn concedes “a lot of folks don’t know what to call it, so some operators just call it whitefish.”

Business has been growing, and Kahn says swai is where tilapia was 10 years ago. “It takes time for it to be recognized in supermarkets, club stores and restaurants,” he says. But as it becomes more familiar at retail, consumers will more readily accept it. Kahn says it has had regional success, becoming more well known in Florida and along the East Coast than in the Midwest.

Clear Springs is continuing to work with it, he says, and is exploring other value-added coatings, especially flavors that are on trend right now.

For Fishery Products International, a foodservice brand of High Liner Foods, supply has been sufficient to meet demand, says Carolyn Piscatelli, FPI brand manager. “We’ve had a consistent supply base,” she says, noting FPI is a smaller player in this market.

FPI offers foodservice commodity fillets and value-added products using pangasius, she says. “We go for more of a premium specification,” she says, buying untreated, chemical-free fish with tight color specifications on the raw flesh. Pangasius meat ranges from the least desirable and less expensive yellow to pink to the higher-priced white. 

Icelandic began offering pangasius items in 2008 as an alternative to more expensive haddock and cod but using the same coatings, says Jim Papadakis, director of marketing for Icelandic, another High Liner brand. He agrees that pangasius is now in a similar position to where tilapia was several years ago, with education being critical to the growth of the species.

“I think pangasius has potential,” he says, but notes that unlike some fish, pangasius is seldom called out by name on menus. 

Bill DiMento, corporate director of sustainability for High Liner Foods in Portsmouth, N.H., says he has “very strong feelings” on why pangasius hasn’t reached the same status as tilapia. He says the negative perceptions about aquaculture in general have impacted pangasius, as have “attacks from our own catfish market.” 

DiMento says there is room for both pangasius and farmed domestic catfish, but until efforts to restrict imports are set aside, High Liner will continue to “proceed slowly” in its investment in pangasius, while continuing to grow it through sales, promotions and educational efforts.

One way to help the species is to continue to put an emphasis on quality control and food safety, says DiMento. He says most of the industry focuses on safety, quality requirements and meeting specifications, but there are always some “who push the limits and make it bad for all of us.”

Better science, education and the work of the Global Aquaculture Alliance have all helped improve the species and protect the environment, he says.

Piscatelli says FPI is promoting pangasius through October as part of an “It Pays To Be Different” event, urging foodservice operators and distributors to promote pangasius over more well-known species, such as tilapia. The promo involves rebates and recipes.

QVD’s December continues to see pangasius erode market share from tilapia. Demand continues to increase, he says, “even though so many consumers aren’t familiar with it.” For that reason, he says, “It has tremendous growth potential.” December says growth has been about 30 percent this year, “and we could see a year or two of 100 percent growth.”

Like DiMento, December voices concerns about “bad product” making it difficult for the pangasius industry. He says to cover cost increases, some suppliers have added more moisture to the product, “so it’s up to buyers to test it and be aware,” he says. 

December would also like to see pangasius settle on a name “that people can rally around.” In the marketplace, the fish has been referred to as swai, basa, tra, striped pangasius, river cobbler or cream dory. 

Under its newest brand, H2Origins, QVD is offering swai/striped pangasius fillets and a value-added product, Extra Crunchy Panko Swai. The fish is Best Aquaculture Practices-certified for the farm and the factory, which December considered the best choice and a certification that customers would recognize and accept. While there are additional certifications they could go for, he says, “there is a limit to what people will pay.”

For brewery operator and restaurateur Ken Carson Jr., swai was the fish of choice for his pub-style menu at Nexus Brewery in Albuquerque, N.M.

Carson tasted tilapia, catfish and swai during a blind tasting at his foodservice supplier, but settled on swai for its flavor and its price. 

“Swai tasted better to me than catfish,” says Carson, who recently marked the one-year anniversary of his brewpub. “And the cost sealed the deal, because at the time swai was half the price of catfish,” he adds. 

Swai is the only fish on Carson’s soul food menu, appearing as Southern fried and in sliders as well as blackened for fish tacos. The fried version consistently competes as the No. 1 entrée against another Southern favorite, chicken and waffles, says Carson.

“Our customers sure like it,” he adds.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles with pangasius here.

Featured Supplier

Company Category