« March 2010 Table of Contents
Shrinking domestic industry continues to
By Joanne Friedrick
March 01, 2010
Cautious optimism is prevalent among those who work in the
U.S. catfish industry. Although grower prices are down from
2008 levels, and there are fewer raw materials for processing,
those sticking with the business are encouraged by actions
designed to reinvigorate catfish sales.
"It's an evolving market," says Taylor Webb, spokesperson
for the Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) and editor of The
Catfish Journal . "Not all numbers are going in a positive
direction," he acknowledges, "but we're feeling good about the
marketing efforts and the plans for the future."
U.S. catfish operations had declined to 1,306 by January
2009, down from 1,617 in January 2008. According to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics
Service, from July through Dec. 31, 2009, catfish farms in the
three major producing states (Alabama, Arkansas and
Mississippi) saw a 15 percent decline in acres devoted to
Prices are up slightly. The average grower price in 2009
began at 81 cents per pound, then leveled off to just above 75
cents. In contrast, 2008 prices started well down at 65 cents
per pound but grew steadily for the year until reaching the
Processor prices were down in December 2009, with fresh
catfish wholesaling for an
average of $2.38 per pound, down 10
cents from the same period in 2008. Frozen fish averaged $2.51
per pound, down 9 cents from December of the previous year.
It wasn't until December 2009 that processed-catfish numbers
rebounded. The December total of 33.8 million pounds was up 3
percent over December 2008. Throughout 2009, processing lagged
behind 2008's numbers, finishing the year with 466.1 million
pounds, versus 509.6 million in 2008.
Billy Mohead, director of sales and marketing at Pride of
the Pond, a catfish operation in Tunica, Miss., says overall
demand for catfish is down, in large part because of the
"Restaurants are experiencing more business failures than
anytime I can remember," he says. "Sales are down, and prices
can't go up. [Restaurateurs] are searching for a cheaper
Catfish is not just struggling to compete with other
proteins like chicken; it also is losing out to other fish
species, including tilapia, and has yet to regain that market,
Despite the competition, Mohead is buoyed by the start of
the Lenten season, which historically provides a sales boost
for seafood. Catfish is appealing, he says, "because it's a
good clean-tasting fish, adaptable to different recipes."
New marketing effort
In the works for five years, Webb says the Delacata cut of
catfish - a deep-skinned, 1/2-inch to 1-inch hand-trimmed cut
with a minimal bloodline - "is just around the corner" for
widespread introduction, says CFA's Webb. Delacata has been
tested at white-
tablecloth restaurants over the past year, he
adds, "and it has made some tangible steps, getting good
feedback from chefs and customers." Delacata entrées have been
selling in the $20 range.
Processors who have seen The Catfish Institute's marketing
plan, he says, are also getting on board. Webb featured the
product on the January cover of The Catfish Journal as an
announcement that it is ready for buyers.
The CFA is supporting Delacata with a brochure featuring
photos and recipes. The specialty cut will be marketed to
restaurateurs nationally, breaking away from catfish's more
regional focus, says Webb. Two large processors have gone
through training to produce Delacata, and possibly three others
will be trained down the road, he adds.
Mohead says while Pride of the Pond doesn't currently
produce a deep-skinned fillet, he believes the higher price
that Delacata will garner should cover the loss from
undertaking the deep-skin process.
Another development that should help the U.S. catfish
industry, says Webb, is the move by several states to require
country-of-origin information on menus and restaurant
Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi have all
adopted state legislation that requires such labeling. And
similar laws are in the works for Texas, North Carolina,
Georgia and Kentucky, says Webb.
Because 70 percent of the U.S. catfish supply is consumed in
restaurants, he notes, it makes sense to focus on this channel
for labeling laws. Federal law already mandates
country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) at supermarkets.
Mohead says COOL gives farmers and processors a boost as
they compete against imported products such as channel catfish
from China and pangasius from Vietnam. Restaurants that sell a
lot of catfish are showcasing the local origins, he adds.
At The Crown Restaurant in Indianola, Miss., owner Evelyn
Roughton features local catfish. Menu mainstays include Catfish
Cakes; Catfish Allison, made with Parmesan cheese and green
onions; and Catfish Salad, similar to a seafood salad, but made
with catfish fillets prepared in crab-boil seasoning. Catfish
Florentine prepared with spinach and a béchamel sauce is
another entrée that rotates onto the menu.
While most consumers think of traditional fried preparations
for the fish, Roughton says catfish is competitive with other
whitefish species and can accommodate preparations beyond
frying. In 1992 she wrote "The Classic Catfish Cookbook" with
120 catfish recipes, none of them fried.
"There are good, healthy things you can do with it," she
says, noting that The Crown starts with poached fillets for
more healthful entrée options.
Roughton has worked with Delacata for special events but for
now prefers to use traditional cuts, because her menu focuses
on serving products that can be found at the local grocery
Just as Roughton is focused on showcasing catfish in new
recipes, Webb says the industry overall is looking for
additional sales outlets.
One area where they see a gap is in quick-service
restaurants. "The key is getting them to understand the quality
of U.S. farmed-raised catfish," he says. "It's a gap we want to
Although Pride of the Pond's sales are primarily in the
South, Mohead's small plant is expanding its reach to customers
in California and Michigan.
By bringing more attention to the industry through marketing
programs and press coverage - catfish will be featured on Alton
Brown's "Good Eats" cooking show this year - and continuing to
create new applications, Mohead says there are opportunities
for growth with domestic catfish.
But what also is important, he says, is that farmers receive
a price high enough to survive. He says recent increases in
catfish feed prices, which in some instances doubled because of
a gluten shortage, has put some farmers out of business. Right
now, the supply of fish is plentiful, says Mohead, but farm
prices need to rise to keep the industry alive.
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland,