Comeback cats?

By

James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
June 17, 2014

During last week’s Capitol Hill Oceans Week, the eminently quotable chef-turned-food philosopher and fisheries advocate Barton Seaver called the “Made in the U.S.A.” label one of the most “important and effective sales tools ever created” at the Future of Fisheries panel discussion. His point that provenance is paramount has never been more applicable.

Seafood offers a particularly fascinating food-origin case study, as it hails from all corners of the globe. By most accounts, consumers are putting their dollars behind locally made goods and foods, often agreeing to pay more for such items. But consumers seem reticent to pay more to support the United States’ oldest finfish aquaculture industry, particularly when a much cheaper alternative exists. Catfish farmers hope that trend will reverse. A new report from Auburn University offer some hints that matters are improving but the numbers continue to show otherwise.

The “2013 U.S. Catfish Database” by Dr. Terry Hanson at Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, et al, was published recently after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service stopped its monthly catfish processing and feed-delivery reports last year.

Most of the new data is, as one would expect, not very good: Producers are earning less money for their fish (USD 0.97 (EUR 0.71) per pound in 2013), acreage once devoted to catfish production now has other purposes and feed costs continue to escalate. The volume of processed fish in 2013 actually increased 11 percent to 334 million pounds, but that is roughly 50 percent of the peak seen in 2003.

The burning question is why has an industry that’s long promoted itself as sustainable and local had such trouble building business during this buy-local resurgence? Randy Rhodes, president, Harvest Select Catfish, Uniontown, Ala., notices the disconnect.

“Our industry has a lot to be proud of. We’re sustainable, good stewards of the land, community oriented, U.S. made, our plants are kept up to speed, equipped and certified by government and third-party audits,” said Rhodes. “That’s the message that should be sent out.”

Hanson’s report concluded that processors like Harvest Select must find a way to pass on higher prices and invest in new production technologies in order to better compete with less-expensive imported alternatives like pangasius (swai) from Vietnam. That’s currently a tall order, as recent price reports indicate that frozen domestic catfish fillets are in the low-USD 4 (EUR 3) range per pound while frozen boneless and skinless pangasius fillets are priced well under USD 2 (EUR 1.45).

“We’ve got to invest to become more efficient. That’s going on with many of us,” added Rhodes, acknowledging that input costs remain high, as does the finished product. Supply, he expects, will remain tight. “We have struggled for a few years but this is an industry that will always be here.”

In a market where mild-flavored flaky whitefish are in demand, and where home-manufactured goods often fetch a price premium, there’s no good reason why U.S. catfish isn’t the fish of choice for more buyers. The real challenge for the industry is not figuring out how to sell their fish, it’s how to sell their story.

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