October 23, 2008


US catfish farmers in need of help


The US Department of Agriculture has announced it will purchase up to $5 million worth of domestic farm-raised catfish for school lunches and other programmes. That comes as welcome news to the 40-year-old catfish industry that has seen better times.


In 2007, catfish growers in the US had sales of $445 million, down about 8 percent from the previous year, according to the USDA.


Everyone has an idea of the increased costs in operation costs for farmers; even aquaculture takes a significant amount of capital for catfish feed and fuel. A good number of farmers, about a third have opted to cut back on their production.


These cutbacks affect the people of Alabama as about 95 percent of the catfish raised in the nations comes from farms in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.


Prior to the increases in feed and fuel, US catfish farmers had to face another problem in Asia.


Catfish farmers have had to battle the emergence of Pangasius from Vietnam. Paul Greenberg, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation food-and-society policy fellow, recently traced that war and its effects in an article in the New York Times, ''A Catfish by Any Other Name.''


Pangasius in Asia were at one time labeled as catfish, just as the channel cat that came from Greensboro and other places in the Alabama Black Belt. Now, due to the attention given, folks call the Pangasius, fish.


Back about eight to 10 years ago, Pangasius or tra, as the Vietnamese call it, lay side-by-side with American raised catfish in the grocery store. The Vietnamese fish was cheaper due to less space in raising, climate and cheap labour. In addition, the government did not require labels that designated the country where the food originated when Pangasius was introduced; therefore people had no idea they were consuming foreign fish.


Catfish producers went to Washington, sought and received an anti-dumping law that cut back on Vietnamese fish rolling into the country. Ironically, Greenberg points out, John McCain stood against American catfish farmers and favoured the Vietnamese brand rebuked what McCain called large wealthy agribusinesses, which the senior senator from Arizona said fought the battle.


The Alabama Catfish Producers who have sweated out an economic war with Vietnam, only to find out they have to deal with the Chinese as well, a main concern of domestic catfish producers now.


Not long ago, the US rejected 52 shipments of Chinese catfish because they tested positive from chemicals and other ingredients banned by the US, with farmers going to Washington to receive regulations for foreign producers as stringent as those for American producers again.


While hard times have befallen on catfish farmers in the region, there is still hope. As farmers and researchers work together to develop different crosses that will please palates and prove more profitable to the producer, the USDA will help find a few markets for the farmer, perhaps those who have remained in the business will continue to do so.

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