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Finfish Focus: Basa/swai/tra

The versatile, affordable farmed whitefish from Vietnam trails a political rap sheet

Fiona Robinson
November 01, 2005

Next to tilapia and catfish, Vietnamese basa (Pangasius bocourti) is one of the most versatile farmed fish sold in the United States. Much to the chagrin of the domestic catfish industry, basa even beat out catfish in a blind taste test conducted at Mississippi State University last summer.

While most of the Vietnamese product is referred to as basa, the majority of the fish sold in the U.S. market is actually P. hypophthalmus, also called swai or tra.

In the past, people thought tra was inferior to bocourti because the flesh is coarser, but the product is comparable, says Matt Fass, VP of Maritime Products International in Newport News, Va.

“There’s no reason to suggest to a vendor that they would want to buy bocourti instead of tra,” says Fass. “Hypophthalmus is an outstanding fish.”

Both species are raised in cages on the Mekong River, but the grow-out time for tra is seven to nine months, three to four months less than basa.

Upscale restaurants have been known to charge $22 a plate for swai dishes. The fish also is served at a lot of buffet-style venues and value-driven menus. For a fish that is so versatile and has such great potential to help increase seafood consumption in the United States, it has a political “rap sheet” a mile long.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama halted sales of basa in August after the Food and Drug Administration found the banned antibiotics fluoroquinolones and malachite green in some samples of the farmed fish from three Vietnamese exporters. The chemicals are banned by the Vietnam Fisheries Ministry, says Nguyen

Viet Bang, spokesperson from the Vietnamese Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers.

Viet Bang says the ban on Vietnamese fish goes beyond the level and scope of the amount of chemicals found in the samples. The Vietnamese seafood industry is being treated unfairly, he adds.

The Vietnamese have had a tense relationship with U.S. Southern catfish-producing states ever since the Department of Commerce placed preliminary tariffs on basa imports in January 2003. The catfish industry accused Vietnamese exporters of charging U.S. importers below-market value for their product, which resulted in an antidumping petition filed by the Catfish Farmers of America in June 2002.

Basa imports rose from 7.2 million pounds in 1999 to 46.2 million pounds in 2002. VASEP estimates 2004 basa exports at 183 million pounds, and that could increase almost 30 percent, to 255 million pounds, this year, says Viet Bang.

Buyers don’t seem to have a hard time getting the tra they need, but tracking the amount of product going into U.S. retail and foodservice channels is a challenge. Ever since the antidumping case, some importers and suppliers in Vietnam have been skirting the tariff by labeling the product as China sole, Vietnam sole or Vietnam grouper, says Fass.

Swai is “readily available,” says Christine Ngo, VP of San Francisco importer H&N Foods International. The company imports IQF or shatterpack fillets and markets the fish as swai. H&N’s wholesale prices range from $2.70 to $2.80 a pound, says Ngo.

But media attention on antibiotics and banned product in the South may affect demand. Antidumping tariffs will continue to add instability within market demand, Ngo adds.

Product that’s properly imported and packed should wholesale for the mid-$2 range, says Fass. Buyers should be on the lookout for improperly packed fish.

“I’ve seen as low as 70 percent [net weight] in a box,” says Fass.

Buyers also should compare quality on different products. There are differences in workmanship on the fillets among packers and suppliers. Some trim the belly flap neatly and some don’t, says Fass.

There may also be color variations among tra fillets from white to pinkish to yellowish, which don’t reflect quality. Fish feed, growing area and season can affect the fillet color, says Fass.

While it’s important to know each supplier you buy seafood from, it’s especially important to check the integrity of a tra vendor because of the rampant smuggling that’s going undetected, says Fass.

“Know your supplier well,” he advises.

How the fish will be marketed in the United States in the future also is uncertain. U.S. vendors and buyers are familiar with the name basa and hope to meet with the FDA’s Office of Seafood to update the acceptable marketing terms for future use.

“We don’t have a good history of engaging the government about marketing issues,” says Fass.

At this point, he adds, vendors are apathetic about discussing marketing terms with the FDA and will be until the tariffs and smuggled product are dealt with.

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