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Floundering catfish industry tries on

What’s in a name?

The catch word is Delacata.

At one point not too long ago, the catfish industry was the pride of Mississippi. Catfish was booming, and Mississippi was the No. 1 producer in the nation.

However, the state’s catfish industry has been rocked back by everything from poor market prices to ravenous birds. Last year, rocketing fuel costs and a corresponding spike in feed prices only added to catfish farmers’ woes. The market would not support prices that offered farmers a profit.

“If 2008 wasn’t the worst year for the catfish industry, it was certainly one of the worst,” said Andy Prosser, director of marketing and public relations at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute (CFI) in Jackson, sums up the industry’s situation in two words — severely challenged.

“We have farmers choosing to grow grain rather than feed it,” Barlow said. He said the environment has forced operators to analyze their operations, and many are choosing to forego catfish for other commodities that hold out more potential for profit.

The industry’s loss in operators is staggering.

Terry Hanson, agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said, “Mississippi catfish acreage, which peaked in 2001 at 113,000 acres, decreased from 92,500 acres over the last half of 2007 to 80,400 acres by the end of July. There were 360 catfish operations as of July 1, 2007, and now there are 330 operations in Mississippi (as of August 2008).”

Though the industry is down, it is not out, according to Barlow. CFI and the Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) are hitting the ground running in 2009 with big plans, the biggest being a potential product name change.

For some five years now, the Institute has partnered with Viking Range in Greenwood to help boost catfish’s marketability in “linen napkin” restaurants. A meeting between Barlow and Viking Range founder Fred Carl Jr. resulted in the hiring of some outside talent in Turover Strauss of Springfield, Mo., a new product development firm.

After extensive research, Turover Strauss recommended a product name change to boost catfish’s appeal. The name the firm recommended is “delacata.”

“Research found that consumers did not like the name ‘catfish,’” Barlow said. “It just doesn’t appeal to consumers.”

Barlow pointed to other commodities that have implemented name changes to boost appeal such as mahi mahi, which is actually a type of dolphin.

Barlow said the new name has been tested in restaurants across the country, and results have been very positive.
The group has already trademarked delacata. Barlow could not give a definitive date for the name change to delacata, but said they are “closing in on it.” Turover Strauss is in phase two of the three-phased project, and will make a report back to CFI and CFA before any decision is finalized.

There is more good news on the country of origin labeling (COOL) front. The catfish industry has pushed for labeling that would tell restaurant patrons exactly where their “catfish” came from. Some fish served in eateries is not catfish at all, nor is it U.S. farm raised.

A survey sponsored by CFI found 96.7 percent of respondents believe restaurants should be required by state law to inform consumers if they are served imported catfish. Moreover, 95 percent of survey respondents said restaurants should be made to follow the same strict federal labeling laws governing grocery stores.

Thus, the industry celebrated when H.B. 728 passed into law during the last session of the Mississippi Legislature, which requires restaurants to post COOL. Barlow praised the Legislature, Gov. Haley Barbour and CFA for their efforts to get the bill passed and signed. He said that CFI would assist in seeing similar legislation passed in other states, but added that what was really needed was a federal law covering all states.

“I know where my watch is made, where my shirt is made,” Barlow said, “Why not my catfish? The industry has two things going for it — excellent farmers and extremely loyal customers. We must protect that.”

Barlow said moving import inspections from the U.S. Department of Commerce to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was a great decision. However, he said the FDA, by its own admission, cannot keep pace with imports.

The drop in fuel prices has helped ease overhead, but farmers are still not breaking even. Catfish feed makes up about half of the production cost, and prices were more than $400 a ton in 2008, up from $250 a ton in 2007. Soaring input costs still present a daunting challenge.

Barlow said 2009 will be a transitional year for the industry.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.


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