Trade wars? Catfish? Vietnam? These are all things we don’t normally talk about, but today they all meet. Trust us. It’s interesting. The domestic catfish industry (largely located along the Mississippi Delta) is trying to put up new obstacles to its Vietnamese competitors by lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to classify a popular imported fish—called pangasius—as “catfish.” The catch? The same producers fought hard to keep this Vietnamese fish from being called “catfish” for many years.
So why the change of heart?
The history begins with the 2002 federal Farm Bill, when the U.S. catfish industry explicitly demanded a prohibition on the Vietnamese pangasius from being marketed in America as “catfish.” (Catfish and pangasius are taxonomically as closely related as humans and baboons, but that’s about it.) Consumers, the thinking went, would be less willing to buy something with an odd-sounding name from Vietnam. So the U.S. should be protectionist, and jealously guard the “catfish” label.
On top of that, as The Wall Street Journal notes, the industry successfully petitioned the feds to impose “antidumping” tariffs. But despite these barriers, Vietnamese pangasius has taken off like a rocket here at home, with imports growing from $10.7 million in 2000 to $77 million in 2008.
Recognizing this, the U.S. catfish industry now has another scheme. The 2008 Farm Bill shifted the regulatory inspection of catfish from the FDA to the USDA. (The USDA inspects beef and poultry but has no experience with seafood.) This is a seemingly odd move by the catfish industry—until you consider that they now want pangasius to be deemed “catfish” so that the Vietnamese exporters will have to abide by a whole new set of regulatory hurdles over at USDA.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with FDA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) inspection system that currently oversees pangasius imports. And there are no serious concerns about the safety of Vietnamese pangasius. It’s all good fish.
This bait-and-switch would make it harder for foreign fisheries to compete with American fish farmers. Requiring Vietnamese producers to submit to USDA inspections would effectively halt U.S. pangasius imports for several years—giving our domestic catfish industry a captive market. And prices? American consumers would get the short end of the stick, seeing a source of safe, inexpensive seafood disappear and finding fewer choices in the supermarket.
The name change would hurt production jobs in Vietnam, where pangasius now comprises 55 percent of fish production. It would also cost fish processing jobs here in the U.S. And the foreign-trade blowback would likely hurt American exporters in other industries as well. (Vietnam is a big importer of U.S. soy and beef, but that could change if the U.S. catfish industry successfully boxes out its foreign competition.)
A draft recommendation circulated at the USDA reportedly endorses the name switch. But a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing their concern, and noting that the name change would be a “de facto ban on exports from key trading partners.” Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank has also barked his concerns to the USDA.
Will this fishy protectionism scheme stand? Or will it get filleted? Stay tuned. We’re watching.