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November 2001 Buyer’s Guide-Basa Catfish

 

Basa catfish

Basa and tra are finding their niche in the United States, much to the chagrin of the domestic catfish industry

First things first: Most of the fish sold in the United States as basa, basa catfish or Vietnamese basa isn’t really basa at all. It used to be, but not anymore.

Real basa is Pangasius bocourti, one of 21 species belonging to the Pangasiidae family of catfish, which is found throughout most of Southeast Asia. Basa have been grown by Vietnamese and Cambodian fish farmers in cages along the Mekong River for decades.

Fry were captured in the wild, tossed into a cage, which was usually tied up alongside a floating home, and fed whatever cheap fish could be found. After a year or so, the fish were big enough to eat.

And as a lot of people who visit Vietnam have discovered, basa is a pretty tasty fish, with a delicate texture and nice white flesh. The fast-flowing waters of the Mekong give basa meat a cleaner taste than a lot of local freshwater fish raised in stagnant ponds, where algae impart a noticeable off flavor.

After the U.S. trade embargo with Vietnam was lifted in 1994, U.S. seafood importers began traveling to the Southeast Asian country and started shipping the first containers of basa fillets to California. By 1998, the volume was still relatively small, at fewer than 15 containers a year. At about $2.50 a pound to distributors for skinless, boneless fillets, it was relatively expensive for another whitefish fillet with a strange name.

At the same time, however, another fish began showing up on the West Coast: China sole. Except this sole wasn’t really a sole. And it wasn’t from China. It was another catfish from Vietnam.

In addition to P. bocourti, Vietnamese fish farmers started farming another member of the Pangasiidae family, P. hypophthalmus, which was known locally

as tra. Compared to basa, tra is

considered somewhat inferior eating, with thinner fillets and a coarser texture.

To avoid confusion and upgrade its image, Vietnamese exporters and U.S. importers dubbed tra “China sole.” It was sold as an inexpensive whitefish, primarily to Asian markets on the West Coast.

As the Vietnamese government stepped up efforts to develop its aquaculture industry by providing free loans to fish farmers, tra became the preferred catfish species among fish farmers along the Mekong. Tra is a hardier fish that doesn’t require expensive aeration, and the species is easier to spawn in captivity.

It is also faster-growing and cheaper to raise. In just eight to 10 months, tra grows to almost 3 pounds, big enough to yield two 8-ounce fillets.

By 1999, production kicked into high gear, and exports of frozen fillets to the United States soared. Priced at about $1.50 to $1.75 a pound, it is cheaper than just about any other frozen fillet, with the exception of twice-frozen pollock.

In an effort to differentiate tra from basa, some importers developed a new name, river cobbler, but most importers simply call it basa. Although it creates a lot of confusion in the marketplace, that confusion could be worth an extra 50 cents a pound or more to an importer or distributor if the customer doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, what real basa is.

Some importers had a better idea:  Just call it catfish. Sure, it’s from Vietnam, but with a brand name like “Cajun Delight Catfish,” which one New Orleans importer created, basa looks like it was grown on the Mississippi, not the Mekong, Delta.

Most buyers, though, are smart enough to know where this catfish comes from. But since it is about half the price of U.S. farm-raised catfish, they don’t care.

From 1999 to 2000, U.S. imports of Vietnamese catfish fillets more than tripled, from 900 to 3,200

metric tons. Although still a drop in the bucket compared to U.S. catfish production, which reached a record of almost 290,000 metric tons in 2000, the domestic catfish industry was not about to be caught napping by the Vietnamese.

The first thing the U.S. industry did was to go and see for itself what was going on. Last November, a group of U.S. catfish farmers and processors traveled to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission.

“We thought we’d find them growing fish in polluted water

and processing them in crude plants,” says one processor who went on the trip. “But that’s not what we found. We came back scared to death.”

Shortly after the group flew back, it’s members learned that Piccadilly Cafeterias and some Mississippi River casinos had switched to Vietnamese catfish. The opportunity to cut their fish costs almost in half was simply too much for these foodservice operators to resist, especially since their customers couldn’t tell the difference after the imported catfish was breaded and fried.

After digesting that bad news, the U.S. catfish industry unleashed an advertising and public-relations campaign earlier this year to tout the advantages of a fish farm-raised in the United States versus a fish “raised in a Third World country.”

The catfish farmers also ran to Washington, D.C., as fast as they could. And that turned the Vietnamese catfish issue into a real dogfight, with surprisingly high stakes.

In February, eight Southern senators from both sides of the aisle, including some of the most powerful politicians in the country, wrote a letter to the top U.S. trade official, stating: “It is essential that we take every action possible to preserve the U.S. catfish industry.”

In a touch of political irony — Washington style — unless they get protection for their catfish industry, the Southern lawmakers may derail President Bush’s desire to get “fast-track” authority to negotiate free-trade agreements with countries around the world.

And this July, several Southeastern congressmen introduced a bill that would amend the 1946 Agricultural Marketing Act by requiring foodservice operators and retailers to reveal to consumers the country in which their farm-raised fish

is grown.

With U.S. imports of Vietnamese catfish up another 300 percent the first six months of 2001, and wholesale prices for U.S. catfish plummeting, the domestic catfish industry is in full battle mode. Whether it can actually stem the rising tide of Vietnamese catfish remains to be seen.

U.S. catfish farmers would like to make the open-trade agreement signed with Vietnam last July a little less open by including fixed import quotas on catfish. Barring that unlikely possibility, insiders say an anti-dumping suit is inevitable, although Vietnamese imports will have to rise a lot more before that can happen.

In the meantime, Vietnam’s Ministry of Fisheries, in an effort to take some heat off its industry, is requiring its catfish producers to follow certain labeling requirements. But the new labeling rules will do nothing to clear up the confusion, and may only add to it.

According to the Ministry of Fisheries, tra must be labeled either basa catfish, Mekong catfish or Pangas catfish. True basa, meanwhile, can be labeled basa, bocourti or basa bocourti.

That conflicts what the Food and Drug Administration says. According to the FDA’s official seafood list, the acceptable market names for Pangasius bocourti are basa, basa catfish, bocourti, bocourti fish or bocourti catfish. Meanwhile, the FDA says the acceptable market names for Pangasius hypophthalmus are swai, sutchi catfish or striped catfish.

Some U.S. companies have made things even more confusing by using misleading brand names.

Getting a read on what is and isn’t basa isn’t easy, complains one California importer. “There’s massive confusion out there,” she says.

And until the FDA steps up with a more clear nomenclature for these two species, the confusion will

continue.

Confusing or not, one thing is for certain: Basa by any name is certain to be a big — and controversial — part of the U.S. seafood supply.

Supply outlook

Over the short term, there’s plenty of basa to buy, even if it’s not real basa. More than 90 percent of the catfish currently imported from Vietnam is Pangasius hypophthalmus, or tra, claims one of the first importers to introduce the fish to U.S. buyers.

Vietnam’s rapidly growing aquaculture industry is already producing more than 60,000 metric tons of catfish a year, and that production will grow significantly as long as prices hold at their current levels.

Almost all of this fish is being raised in southern Vietnam on the massive Mekong Delta in floating cages. Once Vietnamese fish farmers adopt more efficient feeds, production costs could decline, and production will rise even faster.

If you’re willing to pay a premium, which fewer and fewer U.S. buyers seem willing to do, there’s also plenty of true basa to be had, although most of this fish is sold domestically in Vietnam. Fresh skinless, boneless basa fillets are also available, but at $5 a pound, demand for fresh basa is limited, and only about one LD-3  a week is being imported from Vietnam.

Longer term, it may be politics, not production, that determines future supplies of catfish from Vietnam. Despite the brouhaha about basa, only 2 percent of all the catfish sold in the United States in 2000 was from Vietnam. But it’s the trend that has the huge U.S. catfish industry so worried.

Through the first six months of the year, U.S. imports of Vietnamese catfish more than tripled, from 1,150 metric tons last year, to almost 3,600 metric tons in 2001. In June 2001 alone, catfish imports from Vietnam reached almost 900 metric tons.

Clearly, the U.S. catfish industry has ample cause for concern. The surging imports of Vietnamese catfish are considered the main reason wholesale prices for U.S. catfish fillets have plummeted from an average of $3 a pound to just $2.40. So look for U.S. catfish producers, who have some very powerful friends on Capitol Hill, to put up a fierce fight as they try to stem the tide of Vietnamese catfish.  

Price trends

Now that Vietnam is emerging as a major player in the catfish business, there is a new price structure for catfish fillets. At the top of the new pricing tier is U.S. farm-raised catfish, followed by real basa, which is priced at about 25 cents a pound less than U.S. catfish. Tra fillets, which are at the low end of the tier, are priced about 75 cents to $1 a pound less than domestic fillets.

With so much product coming in and so many new players getting into production in Vietnam, it’s hardly surprising to see catfish prices coming down. The ex-importer price of real basa fillets, for example, has come down from about $2.50 a pound last year to an average of $2.20 this year.

Prices of tra fillets have also come down, from about $1.75 a pound at the beginning of the year to an average of $1.50 a pound this

September.

As long as Vietnamese fish farmers keep pumping out fish, the pressure on catfish prices will continue. 

Buying tips 

If you’re paying $2 a pound or more for basa, make sure it’s the real thing, which is not that easy to do. Fillets cuts from Pangasius bocourti will be whiter than fillets cut from P. hypophthalmus, which will tend to be more beige. Also, true basa will have a more delicate flake than tra, which tends to be more grainy in texture. 

The best thing is to get samples of both basas and learn how to tell the difference yourself. Then get your customers, cook both samples and decide which species will work best for them.

So is real basa really worth an extra 75 cents a pound? That depends on the application. If you’re looking for a fish to fry for a buffet line, probably not. By the time you fry it and put it under a heat lamp, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference among basa, tra or U.S. catfish.

But if you’re like Khai Duong, chef at San Francisco’s majestic Vietnamese restaurant Ana Mandara, and you want to serve it seared with scallion flowers and spicy lemon sauce, real basa is worth every extra penny.

While buying basa can be confusing, it can also be more than a little tricky. Although the quality is generally quite good, and the best processing plants are clean and modern, some Vietnamese processors and their U.S. importers are not above playing it a little loose with net weights and processing practices. Unlike the U.S. catfish industry, Vietnamese processors lack set industry standards.

Frozen basa and tra fillets are usually sold in 10-kilo shatterpacks or IQF in 15-pound boxes. But how much actual fish you get in a box can vary widely. Depending upon the packer, a box may contain either 80, 90 or 100 percent net weight.

Make sure you take actual net weights into account when comparing prices and packers. If you don’t, you could end up paying a lot more for your basa than you should.    

Some Vietnamese processors will also soak their basa fillets in sodium tripolyphosphate to increase yields, and they won’t always put it on the label as they’re supposed to. While proper use of STP is a widely accepted processing practice to maintain moisture and quality, improper use can result in excessive moisture loss after thawing, resulting in an inferior product.

Before you make any big basa buys, you should spend some time in your test kitchen and do some extensive cuttings with a variety of products from a variety of packers. The difference in quality and price will probably surprise you.

Culinary notes

For a frozen catfish from Vietnam, true basa is being served in some very upscale restaurants in very innovative preparations. If you’re looking for a new fish to give your menu an exotic touch, basa is a good bet. And since it costs a fraction of the price for typical upscale fish like Chilean sea bass or halibut, real basa is great for the bottom line.

Restaurants with an Asian theme were the first to feature basa. The Asiatique Restaurant in Louisville, Ky., the city’s most popular white-tablecloth Asian restaurant, offers Wok Seared Spiced Rubbed Basa with Citrus Reduction. At the Port Edward in Algonquin, Ill., basa is given a Thai twist and served with peanut sauce.

In California, at the Soule Domain restaurant on the shores of Lake Tahoe, owner and chef Charlie Soule serves pan-roasted Vietnamese basa over noodles in Asian broth with bok choy, ginger and shiitakis.

If you want to rub elbows with celebrities, book a table at Ana Mandara, opened last year by Don Johnson, former star of “Miami Vice” who now fights TV crime as Nash Bridges. Johnson and his co-star and co-owner Cheech Marin dine there three or four nights a week, often on basa, wok-seared by chef Duong.

On a more modest note, frozen tra fillets are increasingly popular in mainstream markets that serve catfish. Breaded and fried for a buffet line, they perform well, especially considering the low food cost. 


All contents copyright ©1999 SeaFood Business magazine

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