- The Washington Times - Friday, July 22, 2005

The catfish rules. The American catfish, that is.

Those loyal to this bewhiskered and beloved staple of fish fries are reeling over a new study from Mississippi State University that dared declare that the Vietnamese basa “catfish” makes better eating than the home-grown variety. Folks are about ready to throw hush puppies.

“Bad study, bad science. This was obviously a flawed study conducted by a professor who doesn’t know the difference between come here, and sic ‘em,” Rep. Mike Ross, Arkansas Democrat, said yesterday.

“The American farm-raised catfish has been raised on a farm on the delta — and not the Mekong Delta. There’s not anything that compares to it. For a study to promote this so-called ‘catfish’ from Vietnam is just absolutely insane,” Mr. Ross said.

Indeed, food science professor Doug Marshall presented a paper titled “Sensory quality difference between U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets and Vietnamese basa fish fillets” before the annual meeting of the Institute for Food Technology in New Orleans on Wednesday.

During his research, Mr. Marshall served both fried and baked versions of American channel catfish and the basa variety to 58 “untrained panelists,” who preferred the latter by a 3-to-1 margin, according to the analysis.

“Based on these results, attempts should be made by the domestic catfish industry to improve the eating quality of their products, which will help ensure competitiveness in the international marketplace,” Mr. Marshall notes in his study.

Them there were fightin’ words for the catfish farmers. “The reported findings from Mississippi State don’t add up, given that U.S. farm-raised catfish is the fourth-most-popular fish in the country,” said Roger Barlow, president of the Mississippi-based Catfish Institute, which represents 1,000 catfish farmers in 13 states.

He cited U.S. Census Bureau figures that found restaurants alone served 300 million pounds of catfish last year, but only 9 million pounds of basa. The American fish are raised in clay ponds, Mr. Barlow notes, and fed high-protein grain.

“My customers always leave happy and satisfied,” vouched Evelyn Roughton, chef of Crown in the Town, a catfish restaurant in Indianola, Miss.

The university now contends that the study was “preliminary” and meant for an academic rather than a public audience, according to Benji Michael, director of Mississippi State’s food sciences department.

“This study has received more attention than it deserved,” said Vance Watson, dean of the school’s Agriculture and Life Sciences Department. “Particularly the ‘preference’ part. It was such a small sample, like taking the Pepsi Challenge. But once it got in our local media, folks got stirred up.”

What was overlooked, Mr. Watson said, was that American catfish are farmed under controlled circumstances, with local food and quality water. “And that means quality,” he added.

Folks get fierce about their catfish because it is, in some ways, an allegory of the South, said John T. Edge of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

“Catfish was once the food of the poor, now it is celebrated. The South has risen up as well,” Mr. Edge said. “But there’s heritage and mythology, too. Catfish represents a simpler time, when all good food was fried in roiling fat and the bounty of the rivers and stream was there for the taking.”

Among other things, love of catfish has inspired the annual World Catfish Festival staged in Belzoni, a town of 2,300 in the Yazoo delta country of Mississippi. The festival boasts its own “Miss Catfish.”

But the catfish also was the catalyst in a trade war that began five years ago after lower-priced Vietnamese basa fish arrived on these shores, billed as “catfish.” The cheaper imports quickly commanded 20 percent of the annual $590 million catfish industry, prompting Southern lawmakers to scurry for protective legislation on behalf of farmers in Mississippi, Arkansas and 12 other states.

They won. The 2002 Farm Bill prohibited the Vietnamese basa from bearing a catfish label. A year later, the Commerce Department imposed a tariff on the imported fish of up to 64 percent — a ruling applauded by Mr. Ross but not the 400,000 sundry people employed in the Vietnamese catfishing industry.

About a third of their exports had gone to the United States in previous years. “Those fish raised in a cage in some muddy Vietnam river are no more related to an American catfish than a cat to a cow,” Mr. Ross said. “And I am sure that the study is now a source of total embarrassment to Mississippi State University.”

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