I have been writing a great deal about catfish–by which I mean any of the ray finned fish of the order Siluriforme. There are literally thousands of individual species within this order—all united under the taxonomical rubric by certain shared features such as lack of scales, a well-developed Weberian apparatus, and a reduced gas bladder. Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, only a tiny number of the Siluriformes are actually “catfish”. What’s going on here? Have I been lying to you about all of these fascinating catfish?
No. Here is the ridiculous story of what happened.
During the 1990s, Vietnam began a widespread reform movement towards a market-driven economy. The reforms were an instant and immense success: the number of people living in poverty in Vietnam dropped from 70% of the population to 30% of the population. Vietnam’s standard of living rose dramatically and the nations leaders began courting the United States as both a trade partner and an ally against the rising regional hegemony of China. One of Vietnam’s top exports was basa, freshwater catfish raised quickly and cheaply on fish farms along the tributary rivers of the Mekong. “Basa” can be used to describe several different catfish, usually Pangasius bocourti, Pangasius hypophthalmus, or Pangasius pangasius. These fish are truly omnivorous and their ability to take sips of pure air means huge numbers can be raised in small spaces.
Vietnamese catfish exports to America exploded. Thanks to cheap labor, inexpensive farm techniques (which probably involve a level of abuse to the Mekong river), and superior tasting flesh, basa quickly outcompeted channel catfish from the moribund catfish farms of the American South.
That’s when Catfish Farmers of America (an agricultural lobbying organization) lobbied Mississippi’s then Senator, Trent Lott, to act against the Vietnamese imports. Lott duly appended a rider onto an important appropriations bill. This rider mandated that out of the thousands of catfish types, only the North American Ictaluridae could henceforth be called “catfish”. In the subsequent debate John McCain lashed out at this anti-free trade (and anti-ichthyology) legislation calling it, “a scurrilous campaign against foreign catfish for the most parochial reasons.” Senator Hutchinson of Arkansas, responded (and demonstrated a deplorable lack of taxonomical savvy) by stating that, “Vietnamese Basa is no more related to the Southern catfish than a cat is to a cow.” [It is well known that cows are even toed ungulates and hence members of the order Artiodactyla, whereas cats are a member of an entirely different order of mammals, the Carnivora. Both basa and chanel cats are in the same order of fish.]. Unfortunately the Senator’s failure to grasp biology was no bar to passing the anti-trade legislation and, in 2003, Congress passed laws preventing all non-Ictaluridae catfish from being labelled as catfish (as well as imposing additional tariffs on Vietnamese basa).
There was a silver lining for Vietnamese fish exporters: basa is completely delicious and has continued to outsell “catfish”. Indeed the Vietnamese began to rake in windfall profits because, despite punitive tariffs, their product was still cheaper than American catfish which soared in cost due to increased corn prices (corn, a catfish feedstock, became more expensive thanks to Congressionally mandated ethanol subsidies–but that is another story). Also thanks to the noise and drama produced by Congress, basa acquired its own “brand recognition” and picked up a group of devoted consumers both here and abroad.
Indeed, when I buy catfish, I buy basa. American catfish, particularly in the early days of aquiculture, could sometimes taste musty and dirty, whereas I have always found basa to have a clean, delicate flavor and wonderful light flaky texture. After trying out a number of smear campaigns against basa (most of which ricocheted and cost consumer sentiment against all catfish) the Catfish Farmers of America have decided to rebrand their own product as “DELECATA™”. This is (apparently) plain old channel catfish which has been rebranded and renamed. To quote Saveur magazine,
Processed from larger fish, the custom-cut filets will be more than twice the size of regular catfish filets and sold at a higher price. ‘Let’s face it, catfish is not the best name, especially for people outside the South,’ says Jeremy Robbins, a marketer for the Catfish Institute, the industry group in charge of the makeover.
Astonishingly the Ramey Agency, a corporate consultant, worked for three years coming up with the DELECATA™ concept and was paid a substantial amount of money for doing so. Having said this, DELECATA™ looks pretty tasty and will probably actually sell in a world filled with dim consumers willing to pay for organic potatoes. I’ll happily try it if I win the lottery (or ever see it in a Brooklyn supermarket).
I guess we’ll see how DELECATA™ works out. In the mean time the catfish wars continue. Both American producers and Vietnamese producers are coming under the shadow of Chinese catfish exports. China is enormous and, as anyone trying to do business anywhere knows, Chinese producers can undersell anyone (unless the products in question require extraordinary technological finesse). The Chinese are capable of flooding the catfish market and crushing both Vietnamese and American producers. An intriguing idea being floated by the Vietnamese catfish farmers is to create a super hybrid between the more humble species of Pangasius being farmed today and the Mekong’s elusive giant catfish (which is a close relative). So it looks like giant mutant catfish lie in our near future. In the mean time enjoy a plate of tasty catfish/basa/delacata/whatever.