- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

The one-time bottom feeder has returned to menace U.S.-Vietnamese trade. Less than one year after Congress blocked Vietnamese exports to the United States under the label "catfish," U.S. farmers are asking the federal government to slap tariffs on the Vietnamese fish that are still entering the country.
The American industry, which is concentrated in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, has complained that Vietnam's success in selling into the U.S. market is driving down prices for the entire industry and threatening the livelihoods of farms that raise grain-fed catfish in massive man-made ponds.
"The presence of Vietnamese fish in the U.S. market has had a ripple effect on the entire price structure," said Hugh Warren, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America, an industry association in Indianola, Miss.
They want the government to impose 191 percent duties on Vietnamese fish. The International Trade Commission, a federal panel that examines complaints about imports, agreed on Aug. 8 to investigate the claim and rule by Dec. 5.
Vietnamese producers, angry to be again fighting what they see as protectionist domestic interests, say they are practicing capitalism under a U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement that is barely a year old.
"Our goal is, and always will be, to produce products of the finest quality for consumers at reasonable prices," said Ngo Phuoc Hau, general director of Agifish, a Vietnamese company. "We categorically deny any charges of unfair pricing in the United States."
The tariff tussle represents the latest phase in a fight over catfish that began in December.
That month, Congress passed a law stating that only creatures from the "Ictaluridae" family the grouping native to the Mississippi Delta can be marketed in the United States as catfish. The rule took aim at Vietnamese producers, who had claimed about 20 percent of the $4 billion American market with their main species of the fish, known as "basa" and "tra."
Delta producers ran a patriotism-laden advertising campaign urging consumers not to buy "catfish with a foreign accent," prompting advocates of U.S.-Vietnamese reconciliation, such as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to castigate them for xenophobia.
The campaign also tarnished the American reputation for open markets a short time after the United States and Vietnam put into effect their first trade agreement since the Vietnam War.
While the labeling law has driven Vietnamese producers' market share down to about 12 percent, it has not relieved the pricing pressure in the United States because the rule is widely ignored, Mr. Warren said. He noted that Mississippi, which has its own labeling law, fined a retailer in Hutley $1,800 for selling Vietnamese basa labeled as catfish.
"There are many cases where nothing has changed," he said.
Lyle vander Schaaf, a lawyer with White & Case who represents Vietnamese producers, countered that the U.S. companies are simply trying to block any products that might compete with catfish, even if it is not labeled as such.
"It's as though they are trying to stop an alternative product," Mr. vander Schaaf said. "I think they'd try to stop sales of chicken filets if they could."


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