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Top Species: Catfish

Makeover designed to broaden domestic species' appeal

By Joanne Friedrick
March 01, 2009

Like the Patagonian toothfish and the slimehead before it, the humble catfish is banking on a name change and a higher-end image to build a broader consumer base.

Now in phase two of a three-part program, The Catfish Institute, along with culinary strategists Turover Straus Group, is continuing a process started nearly four years ago to launch Delacata, a premium cut of catfish that would be marketed to white-tablecloth restaurants.

TCI President Roger Barlow, who also serves as executive VP for the Catfish Farmers of America, says Turover Straus, based in Springfield, Mo., is presenting its plan for Delacata to the TCI board of directors this month.

The agency's representatives have met with catfish farmers, processors and chefs "to put together a blueprint for our industry," explains Barlow.

"The time is right for this product," he adds. Delacata is larger by about 2 ounces than the 
traditional 3- to 5-ounce catfish fillet. It is also processed differently to remove the grayish filament found on traditional fillets.

Preparation of Delacata will also be a departure from the pan-fried catfish that accounts for nearly 80 percent of catfish sold through restaurants, says Barlow. "Delacata is geared to the grilling segment," he notes, and is positioned as "the filet mignon 
of seafood."

For those who have grown up eating catfish, Barlow says there will still be catfish items on many menus. "This goes after a different segment," he says, thus the focus on a new cut and alternative preparation methods.

"We decided five years ago that we needed to look at the segment we were penetrating the least," says Barlow. The catfish moniker created a marketing problem in upscale market segments, just as slimehead (now orange roughy) was a roadblock for that species when it was first introduced to the market.

What complicates the issue for catfish is that the original name won't go away. "We'll always have catfish for our most loyal segment," says Barlow.


A pinch on supplies

The need for a new avenue for selling catfish is linked to its continuing decline among producers, notes Barlow.

"We do have farmers exiting the business," he says, and the numbers support that. The overall 
number of U.S. catfish farms dropped to 1,023 in 2007, down from 1,035 in 2006 and as many as 1,277 in 2001, according to North Carolina Department of Agriculture statistics.

Likewise, numbers are down for U.S. catfish processing. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. catfish processed through November 2008 totaled 37.1 million pounds, down 8 percent from the same period in 2007. Yet prices are on the rise: Producers received 82.2 cents per pound in November 2008, which was a drop of 0.3 cents over the previous month, but 15.6 cents ahead of the previous year. Processors in November received $1.70 per pound for fresh whole fish and $3.31 per pound for fresh fillets, up 14 cents and 38 cents, respectively, over a year ago. For frozen whole dressed fish, the price was $2.28 per pound and frozen fillets sold for $3.07 per pound. Those figures reflected an increase of 22 cents and 37 cents per pound, respectively, over 2007 prices.

In 2007, the U.S. catfish industry processed a total of 497 million pounds, down 70 million pounds from 2006. In contrast, imports from China, Thailand and Vietnam - which includes pangasius, or swai - represented 27.6 million, 12 million and 49.9 million pounds, respectively, for the first 11 months of 2008.

Heading into this year, Jim Bugbee, managing director at QVD in Bellevue, Wash., estimates swai production in Vietnam will be up 10 percent as the United States and other countries continue to add the freshwater species to their menus 
and storefronts.

Although often compared with channel catfish, Bugbee says swai has carved its own niche with a cleaner flavor profile and economic positioning that makes it competitive with tilapia, pollock and cod.

Beginning as a foodservice item, QVD's BasaVina Pearl fillets are now being launched in 1- and 2-pound retail bags.

"Name recognition is the key," says Bugbee, who adds that swai has already gained wide acceptance in Spain and the European Union, where consumption of swai is triple to nine times what it is in the United States.

"Our job is to get the product into the market," he says, following the public relations and advertising methodology that made tilapia and orange roughy household names.

The U.S. catfish industry has gone after imports on several fronts, hoping to limit their entry into the market or at least heighten the inspection process. First, the U.S. industry lobbied to ensure basa and tra imports could not be labeled as catfish. Then antidumping duties were slapped on Vietnamese basa imports in 2003. For more information on the pangasius imports market, see the June 2009 Top Species feature.

Most recently, the Senate attached a measure to the 2008 Farm Bill that could potentially shift oversight of seafood inspection to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Specifically, the measure would have added catfish to the species included in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, allowing USDA to inspect and grade both imported and domestic catfish. However, lawmakers scrapped the plan to change the inspection rules.

Barlow says while TCI and CFA aren't advocating for the elimination of imported catfishlike species, there is a need for equivalency in inspections.

"We know the origin, but it also has to be safe and reliable," he says. "The U.S. public deserves to have a safe and healthy product."


Safety first

In the past, some Chinese seafood imports including catfish were flagged for inspection for malachite green, an anti-fungal drug not approved for use in U.S. aquaculture, as well as melamine, which has shown up in Chinese-made baby formula and was used by some Chinese fish farms to increase the protein ratio in fish feeds.

Like Barlow, Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select Catfish, which operates farms and processing plants in Alabama and Arkansas, is banking on the American-grown label to give the company an edge against foreign competition.

"Being a U.S. product should mean something to the public," says Rhodes. "Because we have our hands on the product from beginning to end, we can trace our product from the hatchery throughout the system."

Rhodes concedes the outlook for the U.S. farmed catfish market isn't rosy. With a possible shortage of fish because of reductions in farm acreage, he says companies must look for new opportunities.

Harvest Select is focused on meeting requirements for its recent Best Aquaculture Practice certification from the Global Aquaculture Alliance, in addition to building its retail portfolio. While the company does the majority of its business in the foodservice arena, Rhodes says new business will likely focus on retail, getting away from a supply war with competitors.

The company is also launching a redesigned Web site, making it more interactive. Despite contraction within the industry, Rhodes says being a vertically integrated company allows Harvest Select to compete with foreign suppliers on price and with similar flavor profile species such as tilapia.


Beyond the heartland

Barlow notes that the catfish industry is continuing its aggressive marketing campaign that encompasses restaurant promotions and celebrity chef endorsements, such as that of Iron Chef Cat Cora. The campaign includes TV tie-ins such as the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest - a professional catfish fishing tournament - and radio and print programs.

Getting catfish into more retail locations and in stores and restaurants in different parts of the country is also part of the strategy, says Barlow.

"We are probably 70 percent in restaurants and 30 percent retail," he explains. While Texas is the No. 1 state in terms of catfish consumption, Barlow says its appeal has gradually grown beyond the producing states, such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and North Carolina, and into the "extended heartland" that includes the metro areas of Chicago and St. Louis.

Within the restaurant community that already serves catfish, the idea has been to broaden its appeal with new recipes.

Larry Whiteley, manager of communications and outdoor education for Bass Pro Shops, says the company's Islamorada Fish Co. and White River Fish House restaurants began a U.S. farm-raised catfish promotion 
in September.

Advertised via menu inserts and other promotional materials, the new menu items are a cornmeal-crusted catfish sandwich with spicy firecracker sauce, crabmeat and cornbread stuffed catfish with country gravy and blackened catfish with shrimp etouffée.

The marketing message stresses the year-round availability of catfish, as well as its environmental and safety records. Using the logo "Safety you can trust," the signage also touts catfish as a sustainable resource that is raised "according to strict federal guidelines."

The menu for Giardina's, the restaurant at The Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood, Miss., is one of a handful featuring Delacata during its test run. The current menu offers a blackened Delacata filet for $18.75, compared with broiled or fried catfish for $10.25. However, Delacata didn't make the cut for Bistro Aix in Jacksonville, Fla. Executive Chef Tom Gray tried the upscale version of catfish about a year ago at his upscale restaurant, but it just wasn't the right fit for his customers.

The plans for Delacata are just part of the vision for the U.S. catfish industry.

"There are decisions being made today that will affect the next five years," says Barlow. "The industry is going through changes, but I don't think there is an aquaculture industry that comes close to U.S. farm-raised catfish in garnering support for the U.S. farmer."


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine


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