Basa catfish

Basa and tra are finding their niche in the United States, much to the chagrin
of the domestic catfish industry

First things first: Most of the fish sold in the United States as basa, basa
catfish or Vietnamese basa isn’t really basa at all. It used to be, but not
anymore.

Real basa is Pangasius bocourti, one of 21 species belonging to the Pangasiidae
family of catfish, which is found throughout most of Southeast Asia. Basa have
been grown by Vietnamese and Cambodian fish farmers in cages along the Mekong
River for decades.

Fry were captured in the wild, tossed into a cage, which was usually tied up
alongside a floating home, and fed whatever cheap fish could be found. After a
year or so, the fish were big enough to eat.

And as a lot of people who visit Vietnam have discovered, basa is a pretty tasty
fish, with a delicate texture and nice white flesh. The fast-flowing waters of
the Mekong give basa meat a cleaner taste than a lot of local freshwater fish
raised in stagnant ponds, where algae impart a noticeable off flavor.

After the U.S. trade embargo with Vietnam was lifted in 1994, U.S. seafood
importers began traveling to the Southeast Asian country and started shipping
the first containers of basa fillets to California. By 1998, the volume was
still relatively small, at fewer than 15 containers a year. At about $2.50 a
pound to distributors for skinless, boneless fillets, it was relatively
expensive for another whitefish fillet with a strange name.

At the same time, however, another fish began showing up on the West Coast:
China sole. Except this sole wasn’t really a sole. And it wasn’t from China. It
was another catfish from Vietnam.

In addition to P. bocourti, Vietnamese fish farmers started farming another
member of the Pangasiidae family, P. hypophthalmus, which was known locally

as tra. Compared to basa, tra is

considered somewhat inferior eating, with thinner fillets and a coarser texture.

To avoid confusion and upgrade its image, Vietnamese exporters and U.S.
importers dubbed tra “China sole.” It was sold as an inexpensive whitefish,
primarily to Asian markets on the West Coast.

As the Vietnamese government stepped up efforts to develop its aquaculture
industry by providing free loans to fish farmers, tra became the preferred
catfish species among fish farmers along the Mekong. Tra is a hardier fish that
doesn’t require expensive aeration, and the species is easier to spawn in
captivity.

It is also faster-growing and cheaper to raise. In just eight to 10 months, tra
grows to almost 3 pounds, big enough to yield two 8-ounce fillets.

By 1999, production kicked into high gear, and exports of frozen fillets to the
United States soared. Priced at about $1.50 to $1.75 a pound, it is cheaper than
just about any other frozen fillet, with the exception of twice-frozen pollock.

In an effort to differentiate tra from basa, some importers developed a new
name, river cobbler, but most importers simply call it basa. Although it creates
a lot of confusion in the marketplace, that confusion could be worth an extra 50
cents a pound or more to an importer or distributor if the customer doesn’t
know, or doesn’t care, what real basa is.

Some importers had a better idea: Just call it catfish. Sure, it’s from
Vietnam, but with a brand name like “Cajun Delight Catfish,” which one New
Orleans importer created, basa looks like it was grown on the Mississippi, not
the Mekong, Delta.

Most buyers, though, are smart enough to know where this catfish comes from. But
since it is about half the price of U.S. farm-raised catfish, they don’t care.

From 1999 to 2000, U.S. imports of Vietnamese catfish fillets more than tripled,
from 900 to 3,200

metric tons. Although still a drop in the bucket compared to U.S. catfish
production, which reached a record of almost 290,000 metric tons in 2000, the
domestic catfish industry was not about to be caught napping by the Vietnamese.

The first thing the U.S. industry did was to go and see for itself what was
going on. Last November, a group of U.S. catfish farmers and processors traveled
to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission.

“We thought we’d find them growing fish in polluted water

and processing them in crude plants,” says one processor who went on the trip.
“But that’s not what we found. We came back scared to death.”

Shortly after the group flew back, it’s members learned that Piccadilly
Cafeterias and some Mississippi River casinos had switched to Vietnamese
catfish. The opportunity to cut their fish costs almost in half was simply too
much for these foodservice operators to resist, especially since their customers
couldn’t tell the difference after the imported catfish was breaded and fried.

After digesting that bad news, the U.S. catfish industry unleashed an
advertising and public-relations campaign earlier this year to tout the
advantages of a fish farm-raised in the United States versus a fish “raised in a
Third World country.”

The catfish farmers also ran to Washington, D.C., as fast as they could. And
that turned the Vietnamese catfish issue into a real dogfight, with surprisingly
high stakes.

In February, eight Southern senators from both sides of the aisle, including
some of the most powerful politicians in the country, wrote a letter to the top
U.S. trade official, stating: “It is essential that we take every action
possible to preserve the U.S. catfish industry.”

In a touch of political irony — Washington style — unless they get protection
for their catfish industry, the Southern lawmakers may derail President Bush’s
desire to get “fast-track” authority to negotiate free-trade agreements with
countries around the world.

And this July, several Southeastern congressmen introduced a bill that would
amend the 1946 Agricultural Marketing Act by requiring foodservice operators and
retailers to reveal to consumers the country in which their farm-raised fish

is grown.

With U.S. imports of Vietnamese catfish up another 300 percent the first six
months of 2001, and wholesale prices for U.S. catfish plummeting, the domestic
catfish industry is in full battle mode. Whether it can actually stem the rising
tide of Vietnamese catfish remains to be seen.

U.S. catfish farmers would like to make the open-trade agreement signed with
Vietnam last July a little less open by including fixed import quotas on
catfish. Barring that unlikely possibility, insiders say an anti-dumping suit is
inevitable, although Vietnamese imports will have to rise a lot more before that
can happen.

In the meantime, Vietnam’s Ministry of Fisheries, in an effort to take some heat
off its industry, is requiring its catfish producers to follow certain labeling
requirements. But the new labeling rules will do nothing to clear up the
confusion, and may only add to it.

According to the Ministry of Fisheries, tra must be labeled either basa catfish,
Mekong catfish or Pangas catfish. True basa, meanwhile, can be labeled basa,
bocourti or basa bocourti.

That conflicts what the Food and Drug Administration says. According to the
FDA’s official seafood list, the acceptable market names for Pangasius bocourti
are basa, basa catfish, bocourti, bocourti fish or bocourti catfish. Meanwhile,
the FDA says the acceptable market names for Pangasius hypophthalmus are swai,
sutchi catfish or striped catfish.

Some U.S. companies have made things even more confusing by using misleading
brand names.

Getting a read on what is and isn’t basa isn’t easy, complains one California
importer. “There’s massive confusion out there,” she says.

And until the FDA steps up with a more clear nomenclature for these two species,
the confusion will

continue.

Confusing or not, one thing is for certain: Basa by any name is certain to be a
big — and controversial — part of the U.S. seafood supply.

Supply outlook

Over the short term, there’s plenty of basa to buy, even if it’s not real basa.
More than 90 percent of the catfish currently imported from Vietnam is Pangasius
hypophthalmus, or tra, claims one of the first importers to introduce the fish
to U.S. buyers.

Vietnam’s rapidly growing aquaculture industry is already producing more than
60,000 metric tons of catfish a year, and that production will grow
significantly as long as prices hold at their current levels.

Almost all of this fish is being raised in southern Vietnam on the massive
Mekong Delta in floating cages. Once Vietnamese fish farmers adopt more
efficient feeds, production costs could decline, and production will rise even
faster.

If you’re willing to pay a premium, which fewer and fewer U.S. buyers seem
willing to do, there’s also plenty of true basa to be had, although most of this
fish is sold domestically in Vietnam. Fresh skinless, boneless basa fillets are
also available, but at $5 a pound, demand for fresh basa is limited, and only
about one LD-3 a week is being imported from Vietnam.

Longer term, it may be politics, not production, that determines future supplies
of catfish from Vietnam. Despite the brouhaha about basa, only 2 percent of all
the catfish sold in the United States in 2000 was from Vietnam. But it’s the
trend that has the huge U.S. catfish industry so worried.

Through the first six months of the year, U.S. imports of Vietnamese catfish
more than tripled, from 1,150 metric tons last year, to almost 3,600 metric tons
in 2001. In June 2001 alone, catfish imports from Vietnam reached almost 900
metric tons.

Clearly, the U.S. catfish industry has ample cause for concern. The surging
imports of Vietnamese catfish are considered the main reason wholesale prices
for U.S. catfish fillets have plummeted from an average of $3 a pound to just
$2.40. So look for U.S. catfish producers, who have some very powerful friends
on Capitol Hill, to put up a fierce fight as they try to stem the tide of
Vietnamese catfish.

Price trends

Now that Vietnam is emerging as a major player in the catfish business, there is
a new price structure for catfish fillets. At the top of the new pricing tier is
U.S. farm-raised catfish, followed by real basa, which is priced at about 25
cents a pound less than U.S. catfish. Tra fillets, which are at the low end of
the tier, are priced about 75 cents to $1 a pound less than domestic fillets.

With so much product coming in and so many new players getting into production
in Vietnam, it’s hardly surprising to see catfish prices coming down. The
ex-importer price of real basa fillets, for example, has come down from about
$2.50 a pound last year to an average of $2.20 this year.

Prices of tra fillets have also come down, from about $1.75 a pound at the
beginning of the year to an average of $1.50 a pound this

September.

As long as Vietnamese fish farmers keep pumping out fish, the pressure on
catfish prices will continue.

Buying tips

If you’re paying $2 a pound or more for basa, make sure it’s the real thing,
which is not that easy to do. Fillets cuts from Pangasius bocourti will be
whiter than fillets cut from P. hypophthalmus, which will tend to be more beige.
Also, true basa will have a more delicate flake than tra, which tends to be more
grainy in texture.

The best thing is to get samples of both basas and learn how to tell the
difference yourself. Then get your customers, cook both samples and decide which
species will work best for them.

So is real basa really worth an extra 75 cents a pound? That depends on the
application. If you’re looking for a fish to fry for a buffet line, probably
not. By the time you fry it and put it under a heat lamp, you’d be hard pressed
to tell the difference among basa, tra or U.S. catfish.

But if you’re like Khai Duong, chef at San Francisco’s majestic Vietnamese
restaurant Ana Mandara, and you want to serve it seared with scallion flowers
and spicy lemon sauce, real basa is worth every extra penny.

While buying basa can be confusing, it can also be more than a little tricky.
Although the quality is generally quite good, and the best processing plants are
clean and modern, some Vietnamese processors and their U.S. importers are not
above playing it a little loose with net weights and processing practices.
Unlike the U.S. catfish industry, Vietnamese processors lack set industry
standards.

Frozen basa and tra fillets are usually sold in 10-kilo shatterpacks or IQF in
15-pound boxes. But how much actual fish you get in a box can vary widely.
Depending upon the packer, a box may contain either 80, 90 or 100 percent net
weight.

Make sure you take actual net weights into account when comparing prices and
packers. If you don’t, you could end up paying a lot more for your basa than you
should.

Some Vietnamese processors will also soak their basa fillets in sodium
tripolyphosphate to increase yields, and they won’t always put it on the label
as they’re supposed to. While proper use of STP is a widely accepted processing
practice to maintain moisture and quality, improper use can result in excessive
moisture loss after thawing, resulting in an inferior product.

Before you make any big basa buys, you should spend some time in your test
kitchen and do some extensive cuttings with a variety of products from a variety
of packers. The difference in quality and price will probably surprise you.

Culinary notes

For a frozen catfish from Vietnam, true basa is being served in some very
upscale restaurants in very innovative preparations. If you’re looking for a new
fish to give your menu an exotic touch, basa is a good bet. And since it costs a
fraction of the price for typical upscale fish like Chilean sea bass or halibut,
real basa is great for the bottom line.

Restaurants with an Asian theme were the first to feature basa. The Asiatique
Restaurant in Louisville, Ky., the city’s most popular white-tablecloth Asian
restaurant, offers Wok Seared Spiced Rubbed Basa with Citrus Reduction. At the
Port Edward in Algonquin, Ill., basa is given a Thai twist and served with
peanut sauce.

In California, at the Soule Domain restaurant on the shores of Lake Tahoe, owner
and chef Charlie Soule serves pan-roasted Vietnamese basa over noodles in Asian
broth with bok choy, ginger and shiitakis.

If you want to rub elbows with celebrities, book a table at Ana Mandara, opened
last year by Don Johnson, former star of “Miami Vice” who now fights TV crime as
Nash Bridges. Johnson and his co-star and co-owner Cheech Marin dine there three
or four nights a week, often on basa, wok-seared by chef Duong.

On a more modest note, frozen tra fillets are increasingly popular in mainstream
markets that serve catfish. Breaded and fried for a buffet line, they perform
well, especially considering the low food cost.