Whiskered catfish stir a new trade controversy

A Southern fishery, battered by imports, fights for help. Its crusade could affect larger US trade policy.

Lake Village, Ark.

Alleamer Tyler works in quality control at Farm Fresh Catfish, a processing plant in this small Delta town on the edge of the Mississippi River. Her days are sometimes slower than in the past, because she doesn't test as many fish as she once did.

"The imports have made a huge impact," says Ms. Tyler, one of Farm Fresh's 100 employees.

Because of Vietnamese fish imports, the US catfish production has plunged in the past year. At Farm Fresh, 95,000 pounds a day were processed last year. This year, it's down to 65,000.

To US fish farmers, the low-priced imports are not only devastating their industry but also misleading consumers - because the imports lack country-of-origin labels and have not passed the same rigorous inspections as US fish.

Importers counter that their fish meet global quality standards. And they say there is plenty of room for the industry to expand beyond the South, where most sales are today.

"We have to really look at this," says Rep. Marion Berry (D) of Arkansas. "We have to protect the agriculture in this country, whatever it takes."

That defiant stand by Mr. Berry and other lawmakers from catfish-producing Southern states hints at wider consequences of the catfish war.

It could jeopardize President Bush's pitch for "fast track" authority to negotiate foreign trade agreements without amendments from Congress.

Berry, for one, says he might reconsider his support of fast-track authority if Mr. Bush fails to do enough to protect farmers.

Mississippi leads the nation in catfish production, followed by Arkansas and Louisiana. Most US catfish are raised in the Delta, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country. It's a place where the loss of even a few jobs that pay $8 an hour leaves a void in the local economy.

It's just one industry, yet the issue is significant enough that Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has considered calling a special legislative session on catfish labeling - even though it's unclear if the state can play a role in an overseas-trade issue.

Last week, Rep. Chip Pickering (R) of Mississippi introduced federal legislation to require the term "catfish" to be used only for fish of the ictalariidae family (Vietnamese fish are of the pangasiidae family.)

Separately, the catfish industry is lobbying Washington to pass legislation that all fish be packaged with special country-of-origin labels. Six Southern senators, including Trent Lott, (R) of Mississippi and John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, have written the president urging "every action possible to preserve the US catfish industry."

Catfish producers say imports from Vietnam have soared from 575,000 pounds in 1998 to as much as 20 million pounds this year

"They call it catfish, but there are no labels on the packaging," says Bill Arnold, Farm Fresh's chairman and CEO. "People think they are getting pond-raised catfish, but what they are getting is fish raised in cages in nasty water in Vietnam marshes."

BUT importers say industry woes stem from sales being limited largely to the South. "It is the failure to adequately market the product effectively throughout the US," argues Andrew Forman, president of Boston-based Infinity Seafood, which imports from Vietnam.

For 30 years, catfish farmers in the American South have spent millions on a marketing campaign to make the whiskered fish a household name.

Once known as bottom dwellers or mudcats, today's catfish are raised in quality-controlled clay-based ponds filled with purified water from underground wells. The government requires that catfish pass stringent taste tests at the ponds and undergo Commerce Department inspections at processing plants.

In contrast, Vietnam catfish, often called basa or tra, are raised in cages that float in marshes in the Mekong River.

In July, Vietnam's Ministry of Fisheries decided to require catfish exporters to use new names to identify their fish being shipped to the US. The fish must be labeled as "Product of Vietnam" or "Made in Vietnam." Still, catfish farmers say the Vietnamese use misleading words, such as "Cajun," to fool buyers.

"People see that and just assume it's from the South," says Jerry Williamson, who worked for 20 years at Farm Fresh before becoming a catfish farmer.

Catfish farmers have suggested labeling their own fish: putting red, white and blue flags on the boxes. They want to ask restaurants that carry Dixie catfish to say so on their menus. But farmers realize some restaurants will still shop by price.

Picadilly Cafeterias, a local Southern chain of cafeterias, already buys Vietnamese catfish for its restaurants. That's a stab in the heart for catfish farmers, who realize they have a tough fight ahead.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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