Name is everything

Published on
July 20, 2009

On 13 July, BBC1 aired a news report claiming pangasius was being sold as cod in British fish and chip shops. The farmed freshwater species from Vietnam was correctly called catfish by the reporter, who then mentioned that the fish is also sold as river cobbler, basa and pangasius.

All four names can legally be used in the United Kingdom, but this plethora of names for the same fish confuses consumers.

The British are notoriously conservative when it comes to buying fish. Cod is still the whitefish species of choice, which is one reason why fish and chip shop proprietors were using it instead of pangasius. Another reason, of course, is that pangasius is much cheaper than cod.

The two pangasius species, Pangasius bocourti and Pangasius hypophthalmus, farmed in the Vietnam's Mekong Delta, have taken the world's seafood markets by storm. Vietnam exported 208,340 metric tons of pangasius worth nearly USD 500 million (EUR 351 million) to 116 countries and territories between January and May this year. The EU is the world's biggest market for pangasius, accounting for about half of Vietnam's exports.

But Vietnam's pangasius industry developed so rapidly that naming the species didn't receive much attention.

The name "catfish" is known throughout the world, and this would have been a logical choice for overseas markets. However, in an act of blatant protectionism, the U.S. farmed catfish industry lobbied Congress to pass a measure prohibiting pangasius to be labelled as "catfish."

As a result, the Latin family name "Pangasius," required to be labelled on packaging, came to be used. Pangasius - sometimes shortened to "panga" - is now commonplace throughout the EU. However, Young's Seafood, the UK's No. 1 seafood company, and Denmark's Rahbek use the name "basa," even though the fish exported to the UK market is actually tra (P. hypophthalmus) not the slower-growing basa (P. bocourti). Tesco, the UK's No. 1 supermarket chain, prefers the name "river cobbler," under which pangasius is notching up increasing sales in its stores.

So here we have a cheap whitefish species, which is plentiful and fulfills all sustainability requirements, but UK distributors cannot decide on a common name to the detriment of sales. Furthermore, Rick Stein, one of the UK's most popular and influential seafood chefs, told viewers in a recent primetime TV program that river catfish from Southeast Asia could not be purchased in the UK. Little does he know!

And little does the average British consumer know about pangasius - or catfish, or basa or river cobbler. Confusion is not good for business.

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