Home » Q & A » Q&A: Roger Barlow, President, The Catfish Institute, Jackson

Q&A: Roger Barlow, President, The Catfish Institute, Jackson

Feeling the squeeze

Catfish farmers fighting the recession more than most

Catfish farmers in Mississippi have felt the effects of the slumping economy more than most in the recent years. They have fought the economy, the circulation of the Asian basa fish and so much more. With those subjects and more in mind, Roger Barlow sat down with the Mississippi Business Journal for an interview.

Q —  What are the mission, objectives and goals of The Catfish Institute?

A — The Catfish Institute was formed in 1986 with the goal of raising consumer awareness of the positive qualities of U.S. farm-raised catfish. Through marketing and public relations campaigns, we promote the fish’s healthfulness, flavor, versatility and environmental sustainability.

Q —  Please share the history of catfish farming in Mississippi.

A — The channel catfish is a native species to Mississippi and much of North America, and Southerners have been catching and eating wild catfish for centuries – so much so that the weekend catfish fry became part of the culture of the region. In the 1960s, a few pioneering farmers converted some of their land into ponds that would be used for growing a new type of crop: U.S. farm-raised catfish.  With heavy clay soils, the fields turned out to be the perfect foundation for a new type of agriculture, called aquaculture.  From those humble beginnings rose the nation’s largest farm-raised finfish, with annual sales of approximately 500 million pounds.

Q —  How has the nation’s less-than-robust economy affected the catfish industry?

A — Our farmers have certainly felt the squeeze of the economic downturn. But in the marketplace, U.S. farm-raised catfish is versatile enough that it remains a staple for American families. As people eat at home more, U.S. farm-raised catfish is at a great price point for families looking to save money – and eat healthy.

Q —  What are TCI’s concerns in relation to the importation of foreign fish?

A — Seafood consumption in the United States now exceeds 4.9 billion pounds annually, and of this amount, over 83 percent is imported. Under current FDA regulations, more than 99 percent of seafood imports do not undergo inspection. Furthermore, only a fraction of that amount is tested for contamination from illegal drugs and chemicals. In 1997, there were no imports from Asia; today, roughly 50 percent of the catfish and catfish-like species are imported. U.S. farm-raised catfish has a very strong reputation when it comes to healthfulness and food safety. From the early stages at the hatchery to the date of harvesting, U.S. catfish is closely monitored. The fish are fed a healthy grain-based diet and carefully managed in a clean pond system to produce a high-quality product. In contrast, most fish farmed overseas has been exposed to an environment of putrid water often containing dangerous antibiotics and chemicals. The total lack of regulation of imported fish often produces an unsanitary product.

Q —  Is there pending legislation that will address government inspection issues in relation to imported fish that have concerned catfish producers?

A — Yes. The U.S. catfish industry endorses and fully supports the catfish inspection responsibility under the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. It is by this federal program that consumers are assured the safest and highest-quality food. Imported basa or tra is currently regulated by the FDA, which has lenient inspections on imported seafood. And as it stands, more than 99 percent of seafood imports do not undergo examination. Because of this, The Catfish Institute fully supports all imported and domestic catfish being under the watchful eye of the USDA. Whether it is domestic, or imported such as basa and tra, aquaculture is agriculture; our catfish is grown and harvested by farmers, not fisherman. It is vital we continue to push that all imported catfish be under USDA review rather than the current FDA regulations.

Q —  Catfish farmers appear to be unanimous in saying that the industry needs a boost.  What can be done to help them and get the industry moving forward?

A — The U.S. Catfish Industry is centered in some of the most economically depressed areas of our state. With that said, the key to our future success is that U.S. farm-raised catfish continues to offer a delicious product grown by the world’s greatest farmers and enjoyed by loyal consumers. In addition, our research shows that if people are given the choice of eating a domestic or imported catfish product, they will overwhelmingly (96 percent) choose U.S. catfish. That’s why part of our marketing campaign involves lobbying for country of origin labeling laws for catfish served in restaurants.  Legislation requiring restaurants to disclose the origin of their catfish in a visible location is already in place in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Q —  In your opinion, is the catfish industry marketed aggressively enough, especially in other areas of the country?  If not, what more can be done through marketing/advertising?

A — TCI has developed a rigorous advertising and PR plan for 2010 that we believe to be very aggressive in communicating our messages to consumers both domestically and abroad. We are utilizing every advertising medium available – print, television, radio and the Internet – as well as a thorough public relations program to create awareness through editorial content and special events across the country.  Although we are pleased with our current efforts, we are also always looking for ways to be expansive and to more effectively reach our consumers.

Q —  What has been your greatest challenge as TCI president?  What is your vision for the catfish industry?

A — Times are very difficult, and our catfish farmers are being severely challenged. The fundamentals involved in making a profit for the farmers must be present if we are to continue to have catfish farmers. Bottom line, they have to make a profit. U.S. farm-raised catfish is a great environmentally sustainable fish, and our processors strive to deliver the best product for the consumer.

Hometown: Vicksburg
Degree(s): B.S., MBA Mississippi College
Hobbies/Interests: Hunting, working on the farm, traveling
Favorite Food: U.S. farm-raised catfish
Favorite Color: Blue
Last Book Read: John Grisham’s “Ford County”
Person who’s inspired you the most: Family – parents, wife and children collectively

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