« June 2009 Table of Contents
Top Species: Basa/swai
Importers position pangasius as plentiful, economical whitefish alternative
By Joanne Friedrick
June 01, 2009
In the ongoing effort to market versatile, plentiful
whitefish fillets to the American public, basa ( Pangasius
bocourti ) and its more abundant cousin, swai ( Pangasius
hypothalmus ), have entered the U.S. restaurant and supermarket
Farmed primarily in Vietnam, the fish are gaining a
reputation as "the next tilapia," notes Paul Nguyen, VP of
business development for HLG Seafood of Santa Ana, Calif. Swai
currently makes up about 95 percent of the pangasius the United
States imports, he says. In 2008, Vietnam exported 53.4 million
pounds of fresh and frozen pangasius to the United States.
The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the
worldwide pangasius market, says Nguyen. Europe, Australia and
Russia are all greater consumers of swai and basa than the
United States, although Russian imports were down in 2008
because of a temporary moratorium combined with Russian credit
issues, says Don Kelley, VP southern division at Western Edge
Seafood in Washington, Pa.
Within America, Nguyen says ethnic Asian markets comprise
one of the greatest markets.
"[Pangasius] is very popular (among Asian populations),"
explains Nguyen. "And being in Southern California, that's big
Still, he says, swai is showing up in mainstream stores such
as Wal-Mart and Sam's Club in Florida, and in ethnic
restaurants on both coasts.
Foodservice companies have also identified swai as a good
fit for certain situations, says Nguyen, such as employee
dining and buffets in Las Vegas. "Swai is such a versatile
fish," he says, and its average price point at $1.90 to $2.05 a
pound to distributors keeps it affordable.
Nguyen doesn't expect to see prices fluctuate much, despite
tightening supplies. During the worldwide economic slowdown, he
says, some Vietnamese fish farmers exited the market because of
slimmer margins and rising costs.
Because the United States is such a small market, Nguyen
says there hasn't been an issue getting fish to sell. "We get
as much as we need," he says.
The next great whitefish
Jim Bugbee, managing director for importer QVD in Bellevue,
Wash., says retailers have come on board for his company's Basa
Vina Pearl swai fillets in 1- and 2-pound bags, along with
foodservice companies that are menuing swai loins in place of
cod and in fish and chips.
The economic situation will probably cut production this
year, says Bugbee, but he notes the Vietnamese government has
outlined plans to double production by 2020. And even with the
current challenges, Bugbee says QVD experienced double-digit
growth last year.
Swai "is probably the most cost-effective [farmed] whitefish
in the world" right now, says Bugbee. It is competitively
priced against cod, flounder, sole and pollock, he adds.
look at it as the next great whitefish," he says.
Josh Goldman, founder and managing director of Australis
Aquaculture, says while his company offers both basa and swai,
it has recently been promoting authentic basa to consumers.
"Some in the retail sector understand that this is a great
value," he says. But he acknowledged that the early reaction of
some buyers to basa and swai, based on the concerns about
quality management systems in place in Vietnam, has slowed its
"We tend to try to build a bridge to those people," he says,
by promoting it as an alternative to flounder or sole. "It's a
nice piece of white fish."
Goldman considers authentic basa to be superior to swai in
both texture and flavor. By establishing the basa name through
a retail brand, it is set apart from other species. "We have
taken on the challenge to provide this education to the
consumer," he says.
Australis' retail product is sold in bags of frozen fillets
through the frozen food section or the fish department's
freezer, depending on the retailer, says Goldman. "We have been
successful with a number of retailers," he says, citing both
Giant and Jewel as carrying Australis' product.
"There is enormous room for this (brand) to grow," says
Goldman, who notes that while Australis arrived later to the
party for basa and swai, the company has also avoided some of
the pitfalls that earlier marketers of the fish have
Clearing U.S. obstacles
When it first arrived in America a decade ago, swai was
marketed as a form of catfish and raised the ire of the U.S.
catfish industry. Antidumping regulations and resulting high
tariffs then limited imports and pushed up prices.
Kelley of Western Edge says he began investigating swai in
2002, but felt initially that
"we couldn't have an even
playing field as an importer"
because of various issues such
antidumping and mislabeling. "Now," he says, "that is less
of an issue in the marketplace because of regulatory
enforcement. The U.S. catfish industry keeps the swai industry
honest," he notes.
Retailers have been the driving force behind the market
growth of swai, says Kelley. "We call it the recession-proof
protein," he says, noting it fits in the same category as
tilapia as a "good seafood protein."
"As seafood consumption trends higher, whitefish fillets
will continue to trend upward," he adds.
Seafood retailer and restaurateur Greg Lindberg, who
operates Absolutely Fresh Seafood Markets, Shucks Fish House
and Oyster Bar and Bailey's Breakfast and Lunch in Omaha, Neb.,
has offered basa in store and on menus for six years.
Initially, he says, the company carried tra (another name
for swai), "but we thought it was an inferior fish [to
Lindberg likens the introduction of basa into the U.S.
market to that of mahimahi. "Twenty years ago, no one wanted to
eat that (mahimahi). It was an unknown fish," he says. To get
customers to try it, Lindberg went to several upscale
restaurants in the area at the time and had them cook mahimahi
so he could sample it for his clientele. "Now it's
QVD's Bugbee also compares swai's journey into the
mainstream to that of orange roughy or tilapia. By working with
the National Fisheries Institute to set up a Pangasius Council,
Bugbee says suppliers can provide the educational and marketing
tools necessary to grow the species.
Discussions regarding such a council started in November
2008, and the by-laws are being developed and a formal council
should be in place by the third quarter of this year, he
"There seems to be a lot of interest in the trade for some
type of organization that can help with the challenges of
marketing swai in the United States and to help support those
distributors that are handling the product now," he says.
Bugbee also cites name confusion as one of the problems with
making pangasius more identifiable and acceptable to consumers.
"We've been staying with swai because it's easier for menuing,"
says Bugbee, who notes some companies are using the name
Lindberg's mission is to introduce his customers to basa.
"We've had converts one-on-one in the fish market," he says. He
also distributes the fish to other restaurants and in his own
eating establishments, Lindberg says he menus basa as a
"Breading it is easily one of the most popular ways to serve
it," he says, adding it's also "a great sauté fish, similar to
sole or cod."
About a dozen years ago, Lindberg traveled to Vietnam and
explored the pangasius farms. "It was easily the cleanest thing
I saw there," he says of the workers in white lab coats
processing the fish. "I was blown away."
Although Lindberg didn't have the resources at the time to
bring in container loads of fish, he got on the basa bandwagon
when he was able to get 10-pound boxes of IQF fillets through
While sales are still small compared with other species,
Lindberg says "it has grown in the past six years." And basa is
one of the lower-priced fish with a fairly stable price point.
"When other species were doubling in price, it wasn't," he
The only drawback is its presence in the display case. "It
doesn't look as appealing (colorwise) in the case as some
others, like sole and salmon," he explains.
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South