For pangasius, sky’s the limit

What’s in a name? When it comes to pangasius, it seems, a lot. Its on-again, off-again and maybe now on-again, classification as catfish is at the center of an attempt by domestic catfish farmers to strictly regulate a strong imported competitor. Meanwhile, the multiple accepted names for the imported species sold in the U.S. market (Pangasius hypophthalmus), which include striped pangasius, sutchi, tra and swai, have hampered its ability to stand alone as a product recognized by the average U.S. consumer.

But while Americans may not know what pangasius is, they’re eating more and more of it. The National Fisheries Institute of McLean, Va., reported that the species had broken onto the top 10 per-capita consumption list in 2009, and importers don’t see pangasius’ growth slowing down any time soon as it has steadily been making a name for itself as a cheap whitefish.

“With pangasius hitting the top 10 list, I think what we’re seeing and starting to experience is that the species has reached a tipping point — even with the continued pressure from U.S. catfish farmers,” says Chris December, president of QVD Aquaculture in Bellevue, Wash. The company, which imports pangasius, has so far this year seen a 40 percent increase in sales over last year.

“[Pangasius is] starting to get legs in the marketplace that will allow significant growth to occur,” explains December. “It’s extremely versatile. It picks up any flavor that you add to it, it’s easy to prepare and really positioned for any market. It’s just a fabulous replacement for a number of whitefish in the marketplace that may be two or three times the cost.”

In early March those differences remained significant. At wholesale, while both saw price increases, frozen pangasius fillets sold for around $2 per pound, and domestic frozen catfish fillets had climbed to the mid-$3 range.

Pangasius’ name issues began after Vietnam started exporting the South Asian species of catfish, farmed in the Mekong Delta, to the United States when trade opened up between the two countries in 1994. Domestic catfish farmers grew concerned that its one-third cheaper price tag was eating away at their market share, and successfully supported the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill, which mandated that pangasius could no longer use the catfish name.

Now, 10 years later, in tactics that appear to be a “do over,” the U.S. catfish lobby is advocating for pangasius to once again be labeled as catfish. That would make it fall under a measure in the 2008 Farm Bill that shifts overseas catfish inspections from the Food and Drug Administration to the more stringent U.S. Department of Agriculture. After more than two years on hold, a draft of the rules for catfish inspections was, according to a February editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “so onerous it would amount to a ban for at least several years while foreign fishermen struggle to comply.”

Click here to read the rest of the story on pangasius, which was written by SeaFood Business Assistant Editor Melissa Wood and appeared in the magazine’s April issue. 


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