- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

The familiar whiskers of the catfish have made their way to the floor of the Senate amid a dispute with Vietnam, once a nemesis of the United States but now among its newest trading partners.
With little debate, Congress has decreed that only catfish belonging to a biological genus native to North America be allowed such a label, effectively shutting Vietnamese fish out of the U.S. market only weeks after the two countries signed their first trade agreement.
The result? Smiles in Arkansas and Mississippi, outrage in Hanoi, jokes on the Senate floor and vigorous opposition from a bipartisan duo that once fought against Vietnam but now advocates closer ties with the nation.
"America's commitment to free trade, and the prosperity we enjoy as a result of open trade policies, have been put at risk by a small group of members of Congress on behalf of the catfish industry in their states," Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, complained to his colleagues last week.
Mr. McCain, with fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, is fighting to let the Vietnamese catfish take its place on American tables.
President Bush last month set off the flap when he signed the 2002 appropriations legislation for agriculture programs. A provision in the law states that only creatures from the "Ictaluridae" family one native to the Mississippi Delta, as chance would have it can be marketed as catfish.
The new rule clearly is aimed at Vietnamese producers, who have claimed about 20 percent of the $4 billion U.S. market for what is often labeled "Delta Fresh" catfish in U.S. supermarkets.
"No one would suspect it is from the Mekong Delta," fumed Sen. Tim Hutchinson, a Republican, who has teamed up with his Democratic colleague, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, to keep the current law. Both represent Arkansas, where, as in neighboring Mississippi, catfish farming is big business.
On Dec. 18, Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry tried to pass an amendment to another bill that would have knocked the rule off the books. They failed by a 68-23 margin but did manage to inject some levity into a Senate facing gridlock over a now-failed economic stimulus package.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi entertained his colleagues with catfish jokes, replete with references to "bottom feeders."
Catfish native to the bayous and rivers of the Mississippi River delta have a shady reputation because they are known to eat anything, including the remains of dead animals, old tires and whatever they can find in the mud at the bottom of a slow-moving stream. But commercially raised catfish dine on grain in ponds monitored to keep out anything suspect.
A staffer for Mr. Lott was seen imitating catfish whiskers a catfish bears a remarkable resemblance to a tabby with his hands during the vote.
Humor aside, the catfish flap comes at a delicate time, observers said.
A pathbreaking U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement, which took five years to negotiate, took effect Dec. 10. Now, Vietnamese reformers who see the deal as a lever to encourage a transition to capitalism find themselves on the defensive as a result of the U.S. action.
"There is a danger this decision will be seen as a sign of bad faith by the Vietnamese," said Michael Samuels, president of Samuels International, a D.C. consulting firm that has done work for U.S. businesses in Vietnam.
With the zeal of true converts, Vietnamese officials have castigated Americans for standing in the way of competition in the catfish trade.
Nguyen Thi Hong Minh, vice minister for fisheries, told Mr. McCain in an Oct. 20 letter that the new law is designed "to protect the interests of a relatively small group of wealthy catfish industrialists at the expense of free trade spirit and the best interests of the U.S. consumer."
U.S. producers, for their part, are flying the flag at a time when the flag is hip.
"Never trust a catfish with a foreign accent," screams one of their advertisements in huge type. "They've grown up flipping around in Third World rivers and dining on whatever they can get their fins on."
Mrs. Lincoln, in the Senate floor debate, insisted that Vietnamese producers are benefiting from the marketing energy U.S. farmers have put into the name "catfish," even though they export a "wholly different fish."
Mr. Hutchinson said on the Senate floor that many among the 12,000 workers employed by the industry will lose their jobs if imports continue to displace U.S.-raised fish.
Mr. McCain, exasperated but still fighting, delved deeply into animal taxonomy during the debate to prove his point: Catfish is catfish. Domestic producers, under the cover of science, are seeking an unjustified favor from the government, he insisted.
"The catfish lobby's advertising campaign on behalf of its protectionist agenda has few facts to rely on to support its case," Mr. McCain said, "so it stands on scurrilous fear-mongering to make its claim that catfish raised in good old Mississippi mud are the only fish with whiskers safe to eat."

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