Feds Should Guide COOL, Not Mississippi


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
July 1, 2008

Mississippi restaurants, as of yesterday, are required to disclose the country of origin of the catfish they serve. The domestic catfish industry views the new law as a coup in its protracted battle against less-expensive imports from Southeast Asia, namely channel catfish from China and the similar pangasius (basa, swai, tra) from Vietnam. Federal foodservice COOL seems inevitable, but this law is yet another protectionist act and a tough break for restaurants already struggling in a slumping economy.

Seafood COOL has been a mandate for U.S. supermarkets and club stores since 2005, and politically motivated calls for foodservice COOL are amplified in Southern states where nearly all U.S. catfish is farmed; Alabama and Georgia have introduced similar bills.

I support COOL because consumers have the right to know where their food comes from and how it was produced (wild or farmed). COOL also roots out economic fraud like species substitution, which has been rampant in Florida where unscrupulous - or unwitting - restaurants have routinely passed off $2-per-pound imported whitefish fillets in place of $9 domestic grouper fillets.

However, COOL belongs under federal jurisdiction. The seafood industry doesn't need incongruous legislation from state to state so that one interest is served above all others.

The domestic catfish industry has responded to stiff competition from Asia in two ways: legal action and negative advertising. At the urging of lobbyists, Congress disallowed use of the word "catfish" to market pangasius in 2001, and a successful antidumping lawsuit in 2003 slapped punitive tariffs on pangasius imports from Vietnam ranging from 37 to 64 percent.

Last year, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's import alert against five species of farmed Chinese seafood, including catfish and basa, The Catfish Institute (TCI) produced TV spots portraying Chinese catfish as hazardous material akin to nuclear waste. In a Monday press release, TCI and Mississippi Agriculture Committee Chairman Greg Ward (D-Benton) claimed that consumers' health is at stake, which is a bit of a stretch. TCI has also repeatedly used disparaging remarks to describe the Mekong Delta.

Those tactics are questionable, and so is the Mississippi law: If a restaurant serves domestic catfish, then a sign stating so can be posted "in a prominent location." But if the catfish is from China, for example, that information must be printed on the menu in "the same font style and size as the item." Printing new menus can be quite expensive, especially for smaller chains struggling to attract frugal diners. Imagine the cost if the available product, from week to week, is from a different country.

The law intends to protect consumers, but mostly it punishes restaurants that source catfish overseas. With rising fuel and commodity costs, the domestic catfish industry sure needs all the help it can get - just not this way.

Thank you,
James Wright
Assistant Editor
SeaFood Business

Editor's note: SeafoodSource News will not be published Friday, July 4, in observance of Independence Day.

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