November 2001 Buyer’s Guide-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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
As long as Vietnamese fish farmers keep pumping out
fish, the pressure on catfish prices will continue.
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
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.
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
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
Back to Top