« December 2009 Table of Contents
Tug of war
Domestic catfish industry combats claims of
protectionism as switch to USDA looms
By John Snyder
December 01, 2009
U.S. fish farmers and importers are finding themselves at
opposite ends of the table regarding domestically produced
catfish and imported swai and basa, Vietnamese "catfish-like"
species belonging to the pangasius family.
Pangasius has taken a foothold in the U.S. seafood industry
over the past decade as importers position the plentiful,
economical whitefish alternative to U.S. seafood buyers. The
finfish is now a regular item in ethnic markets and buffets on
the Vegas strip. But what happens in Vegas rarely stays in
Vegas: Catfish inspections and oversight could be moving to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, which may change the definition
of "catfish" and effectively halt all pangasius imports as
early as next year. To follow this political cat fight one
needs to go back to 2002, when the domestic catfish industry
lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that any
catfish sold in the United States as catfish must be in the
taxonomic family of Ictaluridae, the species produced by U.S.
catfish farms and also farmed and imported from China.
Fast-forward six years to a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill
supported by domestic catfish producers that would move catfish
oversight from the FDA to the USDA. At the same time, USDA
Secretary Tom Vilsack is considering expanding the definition
of catfish to include pangasius species, which would flip the
2002 ruling on its backside and
allow imports to once again
be labeled catfish.
Why would the domestic industry support a measure that's the
complete opposite of what it requested beforehand?
Although the USDA and the FDA are both responsible for food
safety, each agency has different quality-control criteria,
processing facility standards and import guidelines. The
regulation of fish products would be a new endeavor for the
USDA, which now oversees meat, poultry and other farm
In an April 2009 letter to the USDA's Vilsack, congressman
Barney Frank (D-Mass.), whose district includes many seafood
processors that use pangasius, expressed his opposition to the
potential changes in the definition of catfish. Frank contends
that if the definition is expanded to include pangasius fish,
the USDA inspections would have to occur in the country of
"The problem is that all indications are that it would not
be possible at present for these countries (Vietnam or other
nations in East Asia) to meet current USDA inspection
standards, which would in turn end the ability of U.S.
processors to import any of these fish," Frank said in the
The USDA rule was supposed to be published this month and
followed by a public comment period. A decision on the
reclassification of catfish species from Secretary Vilsack is
expected sometime in January.
The gloves come off
The 2002 law was passed in direct response to the domestic
catfish farmers' argument that pangasius imports, which are
primarily produced in Vietnam and are a mainstay of the Mekong
Delta economy (Vietnam produces more than 2 billion pounds of
pangasius each year, generating 2.1 percent of the country's
gross domestic product), provided the marketplace with a
cheaper substitute for domestic catfish. The industry claimed
imports were undercutting the price of domestic farmed fish and
were eroding U.S. farmers' market share. In
catfish farmers also successfully petitioned the U.S.
Department of Commerce to impose tariffs between 36 percent and
64 percent on all pangasius imports.
In spite of the duties and labeling restrictions, U.S.
importers have continued to successfully develop markets for
the catfish-like species, refraining from calling it catfish
and promoting it as swai, basa, bocourti, tra, striped
pangasius or simply pangasius.
According to John Dillard, a former president of the Catfish
Farmers of Mississippi, "The mislabeling [of Vietnamese
catfish] has severely impacted the farm-raised catfish
industry. Vietnamese fish have taken about 20 to 25 percent of
The Catfish Institute in Jackson, Miss., contends moving
catfish oversight to USDA is a food-safety concern, not a
protectionist measure. "We are farmers and not fishermen," says
Roger Barlow, president of the institute, the U.S. catfish
industry's marketing and public relations arm. "The charges of
protectionism [by the importers] are unfair. This issue is all
about food safety, protecting the American consumer and
improving sanitation and quality."
TCI contends that catfish and catfish-like species should
now all be treated equal. The institute claims that imports of
catfish and catfish-like species "…have a much easier time of
getting into our country."
Barlow charges that the FDA only inspects 2 percent of the
5.2 billion pounds of seafood imports, suggesting that consumer
safety is being compromised despite programs like HACCP (hazard
analysis critical control points). "There have been lots of
rejections of pangasius and Chinese catfish," says Barlow,
although he could not cite any specific numbers.
In October the Catfish Farmers of America launched a major
advertising campaign in the Washington Post and on Web sites
such as Politico.com urging Congress to have the USDA
reclassify the fish.
Joey Lowery, president of the Catfish Farmers of America,
says that importers "…just don't have a good record. This is a
food-safety issue - the last 14 shipments from Vietnam have
been turned down," he says, but he could not say why. Lowery
insists that if imported catfish are going to be substituted
for U.S. catfish, the standards must be the same.
"I just don't think that the FDA has done a good job in
regulating imports. The USDA would be a more natural fit [for
the catfish industry]. All I want is a level playing field,"
Jim Bugbee, managing director of QVD in Bellevue, Wash.,
says that if domestic catfish farmers get their way, USDA
oversight of catfish could ultimately have serious consequences
for all aquaculture products. QVD sells swai to some of the
nation's largest retailers.
"Eighty-five percent of all our seafood is imported and of
that about 50 percent comes from aquaculture," says Bugbee. "If
these imports were banned [under USDA oversight] our seafood
supermarket shelves would be empty. Tilapia, mussels, salmon
from Canada, shrimp, you name it; they all could be
Not only could supplies be affected, forcing USDA
inspections overseas could set off a trade war with
"A trade war would have serious consequences for U.S. soy
bean farmers and the U.S. beef industry," says Bugbee. The
impact would be huge, he adds, affecting large U.S. companies
like Cargill that manufacture fish feed in Vietnam. "This is
simply about the U.S. catfish industry stopping the import of a
whitefish from a country that they don't like."
In a May letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Vietnamese
Ambassador Le Cong Phung urged the senator to stand by the 2002
"For the United States to now reverse itself to prevent
Vietnamese product from entering the market appears to
developing nations hypocritical and counter to the new
direction we all seek from the United States. It also runs
counter to the recent commitment by the G-20 to refrain from
raising new barriers to trade in goods and services for
restored global growth," he wrote.
Jim Wallace of C&S Wholesale Grocers in Keene, N.H., a
major retail distributor, weighs in on the ramifications for
the retail sector. "If pangasius could no longer be imported it
would be a great disservice to the consumer. The fish has found
a niche in the market. Call it what you will - basa, swai, tra
- right now, in these tough economic times, it's a value priced
about $1 below fresh domestic catfish."
Matthew Fass, president of Maritime Products International
(MPI) in Newport News, Va., disagrees with reclassification of
the fish and the proposed move from FDA to USDA. As a major
importer of pangasius and Chinese catfish, MPI never considered
calling pangasius catfish and markets the product as swai or
Fass says the U.S. domestic catfish industry has been
protectionist in its turnaround after getting what it wanted in
2002. Imports are safe and the domestic catfish industry lacks
any evidence to prove otherwise, he says. Fass also notes that
the domestic catfish industry has been short on supply and in
some instances has actually been using imported fish.
"Some of the domestic guys have even been using Chinese fish
and are my customers," says Fass.
Another reason the U.S. catfish industry is pressing for
USDA oversight is that it might be in a better position to
receive federal marketing funds and other government aid that
the FDA hasn't been able to provide, he adds.
Just the beginning?
U.S. fish farmer Australis Aquaculture raises barramundi in
Turner, Mass., and also imports swai for retail distribution.
Josh Goldman, Australis founder and managing director, says
that less inexpensive fish on the market could presumably help
him as a producer of barramundi, but he does not want to see
And yet trade barriers for catfish and other farmed fish are
exactly what could happen in the near future, contend National
Fisheries Institute officials.
NFI also feels that the catfish brouhaha is a trade issue
and not a food-safety issue, says spokesperson Gavin Gibbons,
who adds that the domestic catfish industry has no data to back
up its food-safety claims. He says that the USDA and the FDA
have very different regulatory structures, adding that the
FDA's HACCP program has worked well for the seafood industry in
contrast to USDA's equivalency based programs.
that the USDA is "new to dealing with fish."
And catfish may only be the starting point, he adds.
"If the USDA and the domestic catfish industry succeed in
getting control of farm-raised catfish species like pangasius,
we have absolutely no doubt species like tilapia, and tilapia
specifically, will be targeted with these kinds of
[protectionist] efforts," says Gibbons. "If pangasius ends
up being regulated by USDA the question isn't will tilapia be
targeted by a similar effort, the question is when will
tilapia be targeted by a similar effort? The ramifications for
other farmed fish are very real and should not be ignored."
NFI President John Connelly agrees with the Catfish Farmers
of America's claim that "all catfish should be treated
equally," but that is where it ends. He says that the FDA has
done a great job regulating seafood imports and opposes moving
regulation to the USDA under the guise of food safety. While
not coming right out and calling the tactics protectionist, he
pointed to the fact that the catfish industry's Washington
lobbyist was a trade lobbyist and not a food-safety
"What does that tell you?"
John Snyder is a writer and
photographer in Fryeburg,