Protectionism rears its ugly head in the US 

Published on
February 28, 2014

It seems as though the catfish farmers in southern U.S. could finally have gotten their way. After years of persuading the U.S. government to try virtually every trick in the book — tariff barriers, name changes, etc. — the Farm Bill, recently signed into law, could prevent pangasius produced in Vietnam from being sold in the U.S.

Legislation included in the bill will place catfish imported into the U.S., including pangasius, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture rather than the Food and Drug Administration where it is now.

This will mean that pangasius must be farmed using the same methods and standards employed to farm channel catfish in the U.S.

Informed sources say that this would be impossible to achieve because the conditions would be impossible to replicate.

Not surprisingly the Vietnamese are up in arms and threats of filing lawsuits at the World Trade Organization against “the USA’s protection of its fisheries industry” are being made.

The U.S. is the biggest export market for Vietnamese pangasius. Last year, according to the Saigon Times, exports of ‘tra’ (Pangasius hypophthalmus, the pangasius species most commonly produced) to the U.S. were worth USD 300 million (EUR 219 million).

This is a massive rise from the USD 1.34 million (EUR 0.98 million) earned in 2007 and sales are still growing. In 2013 the export volume increased by approximately 7 percent, although the value declined by about 4 percent.

Understandably the U.S. catfish industry regards pangasius as a serious competitor. However, it has resorted to what many regard as dubious, even underhand, tactics to persuade U.S. consumers not to purchase pangasius because it is not safe to eat.

The Catfish Institute has run domestic campaigns stating that pangasius were being reared in water containing the herbicide Agent Orange, sewage, even dead bodies. And the institute is still publicizing anti-pangasius items. “Europeans Shun ‘Controversial Pangasius’”, “Imported Catfish Tops List of ‘12 Fish You Should Never Eat’”, head the news section on its website.

It is to be wondered why the US government got involved in this issue – politicians from the Deep South must have a great deal of influence – because the USA itself is going to suffer from the “ban.”

Pangasius is a very popular fish in the U.S. In 2011 it ranked sixth in the National Fisheries Institute’s (NFI’s) Top Ten list of the most consumed seafood. American consumers could now be denied the opportunity to purchase a fish that they like and one that is cheap to buy.

The U.S. seafood industry will also be hit; pangasius is now big business for importers, distributors and processors.

There is no doubt that the U.S. catfish industry is suffering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, production of channel catfish produced in the U.S. peaked in 2003 at about 300,000 metric tons (MT) but has since been on a downward slope. In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, it had declined by approximately 50 percent to about 150,000 MT.

A report by university researchers Terry Hanson and David Sites, published in 2009, stated that imports accounted for 57 percent of all U.S. sales of frozen catfish fillets. Pangasius obviously accounts for a proportion, perhaps the major portion, of these sales, but will effectively banning pangasius imports increase sales of domestically produced catfish?

Not necessarily. Pangasius is not the only competitor; there is also imported tilapia, which came in fifth in the NFI’s Top Ten, and consumers may well switch to purchasing other protein foods such as chicken when price is taken into account.

It sounds as though the situation hasn’t been properly thought out. And what could be a knee-jerk reaction is very poor PR for the U.S. A decision to “ban” pangasius imports comes across to the rest of the world as a rich and powerful nation bullying a poor and undeveloped country. Surely not the image the U.S. government wants to portray?

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