IN THE DELTA — The Mississippi catfish industry is losing more than $172,000 per day because of cheaper Vietnamese imports of fish that aren’t really catfish, but are packaged in such a way as to make consumers believe they’re buying U.S. grown, farm-raised catfish.
“Over the last year, the Mississippi farmer has lost over $40 million,” said Lester Spell Jr., commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “The processor has lost $23 million from market penetration, largely from the assault of the Vietnamese industry.”
The Vietnamese penetration into the U. S. fillet market alone has tripled in the past year from about 7% of the total market to 23%. Spell said the Vietnamese are able to increase their market share by offering a product selling nearly $1.25 cheaper per pound than American farm-raised catfish.
“The fish is not in the same family, genus or species, a fact that those involved in foreign trade are failing to share with the American public,” Spell said. “Our catfish are subject to numerous environmental and sanitation requirements that the Vietnamese are able to avoid.”
The labeling law being proposed by the Department of Agriculture and Commerce doesn’t attempt to restrict the importation of Vietnamese catfish.
“It is simply a consumer awareness measure which will let our consumers know what they are buying at the retail level,” Spell said. “The present situation is one so subject to fraud as to be a ‘bait and switch’ situation in which the consumer thinks he is buying our catfish but winds up buying something else. If the Vietnamese traders felt that their product was a ‘superior’ product — which it is not — they should have no problem with letting the consumer know.”
Catfish growers and processes are urging the Legislature to come out with a strong bill to eliminate deliberately camouflaging a product to the detriment of an existing industry.
“This is a deliberate scheme and effort to come in and sell at a very low price a fish that is intended to be mistaken for a farm-raised catfish,” said Hugh Warren, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America in Indianola. “It wasn’t until the brokers and National Fisheries Institute allowed them to put the name catfish on their typically Vietnamese names that they began having this tremendous surge in imports. Before when they were marketing under other names, they were not having any success. So it isn’t that we are dealing with competition. We’re dealing with illegal competition that is backed by the treasury of a foreign country.”
Warren said the Mississippi legislation, if adopted, might convince sister states that also have a substantial economic interest in the catfish industry to follow suit with similar labeling laws.
In Mississippi alone the catfish industry has an economic impact of over $2 billion per year. It is the fourth largest agricultural crop in the state. It directly employs about 13,000 people and also impacts many farmers who grow other commodities such as corn and soybeans.
Warren suspects that the Vietnamese are selling several different kinds of fish labeled as catfish.
“And they are putting it on market at whatever price can move the product,” Warren said. “Realize that these are state-owned companies. The Vietnamese army is owner of part of the processing industry. They are using slave labor. Everyone forgets we are talking about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Laborers are being paid very poorly. They are not concerned with minimum wages or guidelines and regulations from OSHA, USDA, EPA and other agencies that have oversight and regulatory authority on our farm-raised catfish. Obviously all that has a cost.”
Another concern that has been raised about imported Vietnamese catfish is lingering dioxin problems in Vietnam. Agent Orange, which is a dioxin, was widely sprayed as a defoliant during the Vietnam War, and concerns have been raised about potential dioxin residue in fish grown in Vietnam.
Warren blasted the lack of inspections at port of entries.
“There is a tremendous lack of inspection at our ports of entry, whether because of budget constraints or lack of personnel,” he said. “It is just a tremendously low percentage of the products that do actually get inspected. I have yet to see a label that is not illegal or unlawful in some aspect.”
Warren said he sees a loss of fair play in U.S. foreign trade. Traditional strong industries within the country such as steel and textiles have been decimated, and the trend is spreading to other industries.
“At some point we will be a country just selling insurance, banking and communications services,” Warren said. “We won’t be able to feed ourselves and consequently we won’t be able to defend ourselves.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.