Invasion of the Asian Catfish 

That crispy "catfish" at your local fish joint may actually be Vietnamese basa.

Paul Dees' grandfather got into catfish farming in the 1960s during the industry's infancy, realizing that his land's heavy clay soil wouldn't grow a stitch of cotton.

Dees took over the family business near Leland, Mississippi — about 200 miles south of Memphis — in 2000. His grandfather had grown the farm into one of the largest catfish producers in the state, which produces the most catfish in the country.

Today Dees' livelihood hangs in the balance, as Mississippi aquaculture faces a foe mightier than drought or the boll weevil. "As an individual producer, there's nothing more I can do," he explains. "We can't compete against the People's Republic of China."

But on May 3rd, state commissioner of agriculture and commerce Lester Spell ordered catfish imported from China off of the shelves of several grocery stores statewide after samples of the fish tested positive for ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin, broad-spectrum antibiotics that are banned by the FDA for use in human food.

Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have since banned the sale of Chinese catfish statewide. Wal-Mart stores have pulled the Chinese fish nationwide. Tennessee has planned no such action, nor have any shipments of Chinese catfish to the state been inspected. Though the removal actions have been criticized as political, and the specific health risks these contaminated fish pose dismissed by some as inconsequential, the incident provokes questions about how globalization impacts everything in our lives, from regional industries to the food we put on our tables.

Catfish Fever

While catfish farming hasn't taken in Tennessee, Memphis is a big consumer of the crop. Witness the packed parking lot during the lunch rush at the Cooper-Young restaurant Soul Fish.

The eatery opened last year, and its owner — Raymond Williams, who's committed to Mississippi farm-raised catfish — sees plenty of his peers hooked by the lure of cheap Chinese product. As Chinese catfish take a larger share of the American market, prices of domestic filets increase to offset the losses. Domestic catfish jumped nearly 20 percent in price shortly after Soul Fish opened its doors.

Not all catfish restaurants in the city are as committed to buying local, however. That crispy-fried filet you enjoy at your favorite joint may not be catfish at all but Vietnamese tra or basa. "You'd be surprised at the number of places that claim to be a catfish restaurant that don't even sell true catfish," says Kenneth Mitchell of Sysco, a wholesale food distributor.

Farmers in the region are battling to force restaurants to include "country of origin" labeling on their menus. They won a modest victory when the FDA barred Vietnamese fish distributors from calling tra catfish in 2001. Vietnam accounted for 84 percent of "catfish" imports prior to that ruling, but now the amount of Vietnamese imported fish has fallen off considerably. The hope is that "country of origin" labeling will have the same effect on Chinese imports.

Mitchell says that he sells 900 cases of Chinese catfish to restaurants in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi every week.

Domestic fish costs about $55 per case, while Chinese fish runs $45 per case; cases average 45 pieces of fish. It's the marginal buyers who keep the imports coming. "There'll always be those people who try to find the cheapest price on anything they can call a catfish," Mitchell notes.

"We've been trying to get a labeling law passed, " Dees says. "As far as the catfish industry being able to go down to Jackson and shove that through, we can't. In the scheme of things, we're small potatoes."

Farmers are urging the USDA to inspect and grade catfish as it does beef to establish industry-wide quality control. "We think it may help put the difference between us and the Chinese fish," Dees says.

Big business

Aquaculture is a booming business in China. The government took an active role in rebuilding the industry after inland development, dam construction, and industrial pollution stunted China's inland fisheries in the 1970s. It stocked rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. The annual output of China's inland fisheries jumped from 300,000 tons in 1978 to 1.76 billion tons in 1996.

Chinese catfish exports scarcely existed 10 years ago, but their prominence in the American market is expanding rapidly. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. has imported 10 million pounds of Chinese catfish so far this year, against four million for this time last year. The situation does not bode well for producers in the region. Arkansas catfish farmer Carl Jeffers explains: "That volume translates into a reduced processing volume for the U.S. industry. It's only a matter of time before the price declines because of the amount of imports."

War Eagle

Though American farmers find themselves fighting Asian imports today, the U.S. has helped enable the growth of the Chinese catfish industry. Alabama is both the second leading producer of farm-raised catfish and also home to one of the world's preeminent fishery-science departments at Auburn University.

The Auburn fishery department transfers scientific data and know-how to developing countries. It assists in installing fishery infrastructure and works on sustainability of aquaculture crops in a variety of settings. It also brings foreign agriculture officials to the South to show them how it's done.

"Auburn hosted a Chinese delegation in 1996 that visited my farm," Jeffers recalls. "They took notes and were very interested in what it took to raise catfish. You might say, in a roundabout way, I facilitated the Chinese invasion."

Neither Auburn nor Jeffers is likely to have touted the use of antibiotics in fish. The Chinese have developed their own aquaculture methods. While American-farmed catfish swim in ponds, Chinese fish are grown in pens. Water quality may be an issue. "They're growing their fish in polluted waters," Dees says. "That's part of why they have to give them antibiotics, to keep them alive."

David Rouse, chair of the Auburn fishery department notes, "We have hosted some Chinese groups, but we've been very careful on that, particularly in the past 10 years."

Rouse adds that anyone who wants to start a catfish farm in China can find the needed information from a variety of sources. There are no trade secrets, he says. "All of that information is on the Internet. Anybody who wants to farm or set up a processing plant, it's out there."

Banned by the FDA

The substances found in Chinese catfish samples in Mississippi and Alabama, ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin, are used to treat potentially life-threatening infections in humans. The problem is that by ingesting them in food we may promote the evolution of pathogens resistant to these medicines, rendering them useless as treatment — though one would have to eat an awful lot of catfish for a long time to develop antibiotic resistance.

According to FDA records, ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin have been found in shipments of catfish and basa bound for the U.S. from China and Vietnam. Shrimp from Vietnam, Venezuela, Thailand, and Malaysia have tested positive for the antibiotic chloramphenicol. Gentian violet and malachite green, anti-fungal or anti-bacterial agents applied to fish grown in tight quarters, have been found in shrimp from Mexico, eel from Taiwan, Vietnamese basa, and Chinese eel, tilapia, and catfish.

These substances pose a variety of health risks to humans. Chloramphenicol holds a slight risk for aplastic anemia, and gentian violet has been linked to mouth cancer. A Canadian study in 1992 determined that people who eat fish contaminated with malachite green are at risk for liver tumors.

"They aren't approved for use in human food," an FDA spokesperson told the Flyer. "They should not be present in food in any amount."

Outlook: Murky

Scientists and farmers see the future of the Southern catfish industry differently. "I think China's water quality is such that they won't be able to produce catfish very long," Rouse says. "They have to use antibiotics just to keep the fish healthy. It's a fish that has expensive feed, so they're going to tend to grow cheaper, easier fish. The [Chinese] catfish are probably going to go away in a year."

Jeffers has seen the experts proven incorrect before. "We always felt that shipping expenses would be prohibitive for going outside the U.S. and assumed that other countries were the same," Jeffers says. "Obviously we were wrong."

"The catfish industry has already atrophied in the last five years — there's not much fat left to trim," Dees adds.

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