- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Vietnamese basa catfish may be better eating than the channel cats farmed in the United States, according to studies comparing the two.

Not only are they just as good for you as fish that are legally labeled “catfish,” but basa were preferred in a taste test 3-to-1, say researchers at Mississippi State University.

The studies were begun in 2002 at the height of the “catfish wars.” U.S. catfish farmers and others were describing basa as an inferior product that had flooded the American market, partly because of lax labeling laws.

During discussions of his federal farm bill amendment that year, which allowed only native species to be labeled catfish, Rep. Mike Ross, Arkansas Democrat, called basa “these so-called catfish.” Hugh Warren, president of the Mississippi-based Catfish Farmers of America, described the import as low-quality fish that are not even in the same family as U.S. farm-raised catfish.

There are 37 families of catfish worldwide, and thousands of species in those families. They range from tiny bloodsuckers found in the Amazon to the critically endangered plant-eating Mekong giant catfish, with a known record of 771 pounds.

“It’s easy enough to deal with naming, as they did with tuna fish — bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, albacore tuna,” said John Lundberg, curator of ichthyology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. “A tuna’s a tuna, and a catfish is a catfish.”

Physical characteristics, including DNA tests and the “whiskers” that give them their name, show the relationship.

Catfish farmers won their claim that Vietnam had illegally flooded their market by selling basa below cost in 2002 and got hefty tariffs imposed. Earlier that year, they got state legislatures and Congress to agree the “catfish” label would be allowed only on packages of the native U.S. species.

That still left the question of whether basa was inferior. Doug L. Marshall, a professor of food science and technology at Mississippi State, and graduate student Amit Pal looked at three questions: Did one have more bacteria than the other? How about nutrition? What about taste?

The frozen imports were compared with frozen, farm-raised channel catfish from local groceries.

“Both fish were about the same in terms of quality and safety indicators,” Mr. Marshall said.

Also, nutritionally, both fish were about the same, though the U.S. fish were a bit fattier, he said.

But when qualities such as appearance, aroma, taste, texture and overall liking were compared, three-quarters of the 58 untrained testers in the blind tasting preferred basa, he said.

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