Vietnamese fish masquerading as U.S. farm-raised catfish may be forced to unmask under legislation being considered by Alabama legislators. A similar bill was signed into law April 1, 2002 by Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

House Bill 220, sponsored by Rep. Allen Layson, D-Reform, is on the House calendar and is awaiting action in the Senate Conservation, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The Alabama Retail Association opposes the bill, but it's being supported by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Under Mississippi's new state law, catfish sold in that state must now be clearly labeled as to their origin, whether they are sold wholesale, retail, or in a restaurant. The new law also requires distributors, processors and wholesalers of fish products maintain at least two years of sales records, which may be checked by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

The labeling legislation in both Mississippi and Alabama mandates that only catfish produced by U.S. growers in fresh-water ponds may be labeled as “farm-raised catfish.” Other labeling options include “river or lake catfish, a product of Mississippi,” “imported catfish,” or “ocean catfish.”

Imports of Vietnamese fish have been increasingly displacing U.S. farm-raised catfish in the seafood market at alarming rates, prompting the catfish industry to push for a labeling law as a way to even the playing field.

Mississippi's recently passed labeling law makes it unlawful for the term, “catfish,” to be used as a common name of fish, which would directly affect those species of fish produced in Vietnam and often marketed as catfish.

The Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation is encouraging consumers and restaurant owners to be on the lookout for Vietnam-produced fish that is being passed off as U.S. farm-raised catfish.

Dickie Odom, president of the Alabama Catfish Producers, says Vietnamese fish products have been found in restaurants across the country bearing the words “farm-raised catfish” and other logos that could mislead consumers.

“Vietnam fish are not ‘catfish,’ and are certainly not produced under the same health and safety standards as Alabama farm-raised catfish,” Odom says.

“Our grain-fed catfish are raised in ponds filled with fresh well water. Vietnam fish are raised in a muddy river beneath houses and are fed a mixture of water plants, rice meal and immature fish.”

Odom says imports of Vietnam fish have almost quadrupled in the past year as unscrupulous food distributors have attempted to take advantage of catfish's growing popularity. Federal authorities currently are investigating some of those packers for false labeling, but he says mislabeled products are still finding their way onto menus. He encourages consumers to question restaurants about the country of origin of the fish they serve.

“For more than 30 years, the American catfish industry has worked hard to develop a market for its product,” Odom says. “When the public buys ‘catfish’ they know they are getting a wholesome product that was raised and processed under strict food safety and environmental regulations. We don't want our loyal customers to be misled by Vietnamese fish that might not taste as good or be as good for them.”

The real issue, he says, is truth in labeling. “People have a choice in how they spend their money, but they also have the right to know what they are buying and where it was produced. If a person goes to the restaurant and orders a hamburger, they don't expect to be served a turkey burger. And, if they order catfish, they shouldn't be served fish from Vietnam,” Odom says.

Catfish producer Austin Jones of Moorhead, Miss, says, “We are losing our market to foreign fish that are not grown under the same conditions that we have to grow our fish under. As catfish producers in the United States, we have to meet both EPA and FDA regulations, and U.S. farm-raised catfish are constantly inspected from the time they get to the processing plant to the time they get to the consumers. The fish being imported from Vietnam don't have to undergo the same inspections that ours do, so we don't really know that they are even safe for the consumers.”

The labeling law, he says, will give the U.S. catfish industry the help it needs to stay competitive in the seafood market. “When a consumer goes into a grocery store and sees both Vietnamese fish and Mississippi farm-raised catfish, I think he or she will choose the U.S. farm-raised catfish the majority of the time,” Jones adds.

A 2002 Federal Food and Drug Administration appropriations bill also requires imported fish to be labeled as “basa fish,” instead of “catfish,” but its authority expires Sept. 30, 2002.

Persons found guilty of violating the Mississippi labeling law could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000, a stop-sales order, and/or the seizure and destruction of fish products.

Alabama ranks second to Mississippi in catfish sales. The Alabama Farmers Federation and Alabama Catfish Producers support country-of-origin labeling for all agricultural products.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com