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Catfish

Shrinking domestic industry continues to struggle

New marketing and legislative efforts aim to boost
    foodservice sales. - Photo courtesy of Catfish Farmers of America
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 production.

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 82-cent mark.

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 sagging economy.

"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 protein alternative."

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, adds Mohead.

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 placards.

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 store.

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 fill."

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, Maine

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