07/13/2012 03:18 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2012

Ailing Catfish Growers Want More Help From Feds

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the July 9, 2012 edition.

Southerners may think the fried catfish they lunch on is locally grown but it could be pulled out of a basket in Vietnam's Mekong River. Louisiana's catfish industry, hurt by cheap imports and expensive feed, is shrinking. Feed costs soared in recent years as grain was diverted to ethanol. And federal budget tightening has killed several attempts to help catfish producers.

"The industry doesn't have any U.S. government safety-net programs," Butch Wilson, president of Catfish Farmers of America based in Mississippi, said last week. "We're hoping to get some sort of insurance program for catfish -- maybe something like the crop insurance programs -- in the new Farm Bill. It might be based on past revenues but the details haven't been worked out yet." And he doubts the next Farm Bill, which will replace the 2008 version that expires this Sept. 30, will be finalized before the November presidential election.

Depending on how catfish is defined, the nation imports anywhere from a fourth to over half its supplies. U.S. catfish belong to the Ictaluridae family while imports from Vietnam, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Mexico are from other groups. Basa and swai shark catfish from Vietnam, the major U.S. supplier, is from the Pangassidae family.

In recent years, Louisiana's catfish farming industry has faded fast. Last week, state agriculture commissioner Mike Strain said only nine Louisiana producers raised catfish last year on 690 acres, versus 34 producers in 2005 on nearly 6,000 acres. The state's output totaled 2.5 million pounds valued at $2.97 million last year, down from almost 28 million pounds worth $19.4 million in 2005.

"Restaurants and consumers are buying imported product for less than what it costs our growers to raise catfish," Strain said. "Louisiana catfish is farmed on a commercially controlled diet and is better in taste and quality than foreign products. But prices for soybeans and corn, basic ingredients in catfish feed, have climbed." Grain and oilseed prices, while below their peaks in 2008 and 2011, remain high.

In Vietnam, basa and swai are fed grain and oilseed remnants, ground cassava, plants, ground fish bones and homemade feed from fishmeal and rice bran. Not only is feed is cheaper but Asian growers are less regulated than U.S. producers, keeping their costs in check.

Strain said the U.S. catfish industry got some help from the Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act of 2000, or Byrd Amendment, in the form of a cash rebates from a U.S. tariff on imports. The act was repealed in 2006, however, and payments to producers ceased in 2010. That money is now directed to the federal treasury.

A move to increase import inspections, which the domestic industry hoped would slow the Asian influx, was quashed by the U.S. Senate last month. Under a 2008 Farm Bill directive, USDA this year was preparing to start inspecting foreign catfish. But in May the Government Accountability Office recommended the agency scrap plans for a special catfish program at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. The Food and Drug Administration already inspects catfish and other seafood, and the GAO said a new layer of inspections would cost taxpayers $14 million annually and wouldn't enhance safety. The GAO also said that USDA was mainly readying to inspect for salmonella, which hasn't been a problem for catfish. Unless the U.S. House decides that the program should be saved, USDA probably won't start inspecting catfish imports anytime soon.

Josie King, office manager at Haring's Catfish, a producer in Wisner in northeast Louisiana, said her company has been affected by import growth. "A lot of what's coming into the U.S. is the inferior basa product from Vietnam, grown in conditions that aren't healthy," she said. "It would be like eating river fish here."

In contrast, she said "we raise our catfish in a controlled environment under plenty of regulations and with government inspections. We're not allowed to use certain chemicals and products that they use in Asia's fisheries." Haring's runs its own feed mill.

According to USDA in February of last year, "reports suggest that antimicrobials prohibited for extra-label use in food-producing animals in the United States -- for example fluoroquinolones -- have been used in the raising of catfish in foreign countries." The agency also noted that water quality is more difficult to control in rivers, where imported Asian catfish are typically grown, than in ponds.

Butch Wilson said 80 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is from other countries and less than 2 percent of it is inspected for food safety. He said catfish from Vietnam is raised in ponds next to the Mekong River and in cages in the river by people living on its banks. He noted that 80 million poor people dwell along the Mekong and many of them raise fish.

"Antibiotics, including those known as flouroquinolones, and an antiseptic called malachite green are among the stuff found in Mekong River products," Wilson said.

In March 2007, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service surveyed various types of Mekong River fish and found low levels of antimicrobial chemicals, including sulphonamides, tetracyclines, malachite green, penicillin, quinolones and flouroquinolones. Antimicrobial chemicals kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms and contribute to human, antibiotic resistance.

While some scientists are skeptical of Mekong River fishery practices, others say the waterway is ideal for breeding. According to the Seafood Importers Association of Australia or SIAA, the Mekong drains much of the Himalayan snow melt, is one of the world's largest flows of clean water and is a suitable environment for basa. After 15 years of testing, Australian scientists working for the Mekong River Commission found that the waterway wasn't seriously contaminated and cited its large flow. The SIAA said two television programs on Channel 7's Today Tonight in Australia in 2006, showing cottage-industry Mekong River farms growing fish in drains in urban areas and other polluted water, didn't represent the region's ultra-modern, basa export industry.

For its part, FDA, in a 2007 report to Congress about inspections, noted that six imported catfish samples out of hundreds of samples from a number of countries during 2004 to 2007 had tested positive for fluoroquinolones, twelve tested positive for malachite green and two contained gentian violet -- an anti-fungal.

If you're concerned about foreign fish, locally farmed catfish is a safe bet, U.S. industry members say. "Louisiana's farm-raised catfish is sustainable, it's constantly monitored, very clean and doesn't waste water," said Dennis Burns, Louisiana State University AgCenter associate county agent for Tensas Parish. "The water it uses is mainly taken from aquifers."

So what has the government done to help the industry stay on its feet? Burns said USDA has provided on-and-off assistance to growers to pay for feed when it gets expensive. And he said Louisiana catfish producers participated in a federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, offered in 2010 to compensate for declining catfish prices as imports grew. TAA gave eligible producers up to $8,000 and encouraged them to improve their business plans to be more efficient.

Burns noted too that ongoing, government grants for research are devoted to improving catfish farming operations.

On the demand side, nutritionists recommend catfish as an affordable source of protein, and cooks and gourmet chefs like to experiment with it. At Bode's Catfish Shack in MidCity New Orleans, Brian Bode said his business was doing okay after he started it three years ago, only to take a hit during the 2010 BP oil spill. "I tried to explain that the catfish we serve is from freshwater ponds but customers stayed away for awhile," he said. They've since returned for his thin-sliced fish -- an idea Bode got from 75-year-old Middendorf's Restaurant in Manchac, La. Bode is happy selling catfish but doesn't expect to make a killing on it, and has a job as an HIV social worker.

At Adam's Catfish House in Belle Chasse, La. owner Dale Adams serves the farm-raised variety and said business was perking until Hurricane Katrina hammered Plaquemines Parish. "Most of our locals haven't returned to the area, and many of the new residents are from places where they don't eat catfish," he said.

As for labeling rules, Wendy Waren, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said "only catfish domestically produced can be legally called and referred to as catfish in Louisiana. Signs saying 'We serve USA catfish' are available to restaurants from the state's Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries."

Adams said he got his sign from a supplier and has it prominently displayed in his restaurant. But he learned from his suppliers that some New Orleans restaurants serve foreign catfish and keep mum about its origins.

Josie King stays away from several eateries in Northeast Louisiana that she suspects serve Asian catfish and related products, without revealing their origins. That region is the state's farmed-catfish hub.

Industry members say local catfish tastes best. But in blind testing from 2002 to 2005 by Mississippi State University food science professor Doug Marshall and graduate student Amit Pal, a majority of the 58 untrained testers from an area around the campus preferred Asian basa to U.S. Southern farmed catfish.

Mississippi and Alabama are the nation's top producers of farmed catfish, followed by Arkansas and Louisiana. Wild-grown Louisiana catfish is pulled from the Atchafalaya Basin, Bayou Des Allemands and other areas. end