« March 2009 Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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