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Top Species: Basa/swai

Importers position pangasius as plentiful, economical whitefish alternative

Swai is increasingly popular at buffets and
    value-oriented supermarkets. - Photo courtesy of QVD
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 scene.

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 for us."

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. 
"We 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 acceptance overall.

"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 experienced.


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 as 
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 basa]."

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 ubiquitous."

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 says.

"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 striped pangasius.

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 special.

"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 distributors.

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 says.

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 Portland, Maine


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