Dishing on Delacata


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
October 26, 2008

Two weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published its Food Issue, a collection of essays that delve into the United States' most pressing food supply issues. Prolific author and journalism professor Michael Pollan, who penned "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany of Desire," offered his advice on how to "remake" the way our food is grown and consumed to whoever the next president will be. Pollan says sourcing food locally is a matter of national security.

In "A Catfish By Any Other Name," journalist Paul Greenberg detailed the plight of the U.S. catfish industry and its struggles competing with tra, a similar fish raised in Southeast Asia. U.S. trade and food-labeling regulations don't allow for tra, swai or basa (a.k.a. pangasius, a catfish relative) to be marketed as catfish. But that hasn't stopped imports from altering the landscape of the South, which is losing catfish farmers left and right.

Greenberg interviewed Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute in Jackson, Miss., who revealed the domestic catfish industry's next course of action: promoting Delacata, a Grade-A quality catfish fillet. What exactly Delacata will be is top secret right now, mostly because its definition is not yet fully formed.

I asked Barlow what the catfish industry has in store, but he didn't offer much. I gleaned that Delacta would be a premium-quality catfish fillet - a different process, cut and size from what is currently available. The trademarked Delacata, which celebrity chef Cat Cora has signed on to endorse, will be what filet mignon is to beef, he says.

"With a different technique, we can find ourselves in the upscale, white-tablecloth restaurants," says Barlow.

The particulars of this new campaign will be revealed in a couple of months. What's perhaps more significant than a new name is a new strategy: focusing on the positive attributes of U.S. farm-raised catfish instead of portraying imports as a villain.

Catfish has been by far the United States' most commercially successful farmed fish for the past four decades. Whether it remains that way will depend on not only economics but also on the way the industry presents itself.

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