Charles R. Santerre

I have been watching the catfish controversy in the United States over the past several years as I try to figure out where this bad soap opera is going. In a nutshell, the Southern catfish industry is losing market share to imported species and will eventually go out of business.

The issue is now coming to a head as a mandated risk assessment has been completed and a USDA/FSIS rule for mandatory catfish inspection is gathering comments. To read and/or comment on the proposed catfish rule, please visit!documentDetail;D=FSIS-2008-0031-0001.

I believe that this rule will provide little benefit to the domestic catfish industry and, more importantly, it will not prevent it from fading into the sunset. Instead, I believe that a better pro-industry, pro-consumer approach would be to advocate for change in the U.S. catfish industry.

How have we gotten to this point? Legislators, at the prompting of a catfish trade organization, have defined catfish as a single species, Ictalurus punctatus. This law prevents imported species, which are similar in every way to “catfish” from carrying the catfish name. The law’s proponents’ logic follows that if consumers are not familiar with the product name that they see in the grocery store, they will be less likely to purchase the imported fish. While this approach may cause a short-term lag in sales of imported fish, consumers will adapt as the marketplace changes (as demonstrated by sales of tilapia, which is a species that was unheard of in the U.S. just a couple decades ago).

Next, legislators, again at the prompting of a catfish trade organization, pushed for mandatory inspection of “catfish.” An industry call for more government regulation is tantamount to a call for a Spanish Inquisition. So, one has to wonder why the catfish industry would ask for more regulation unless it felt that this legislation could slow imports. Remember that Congress has previously defined what qualifies as “catfish” and that the other imported species would not be included under the mandatory “catfish” inspection law. Oddly, the recently released proposed rule did not define “catfish” but left the decision until the end of the public comment period. Even more confusing, Congress added catfish safety to the responsibilities of the USDA but did not remove FDA as a regulatory authority. So now we have two federal agencies that are tasked with assuring the safety of catfish and possibly everything that looks and tastes like catfish.

There are several lessons to be learned. First, when Congress attempts to create protectionist policies, they undermine the integrity of the regulatory agencies that are responsible for keeping our food safe. Second, imported catfish is not the only competitor to domestic catfish, which is being outcompeted by all mild-tasting, lower-cost fish species (including tilapia). Third, using safety as a way to differentiate your product from your competitor’s product will only encourage consumers to avoid both products. This is a lesson that was hopefully learned by the wild salmon industry when they tried to convince consumers that their products were safer than lower-cost farmed salmon products. The domestic catfish industry won’t survive by trying to paint imported catfish as less safe than domestic catfish. USDA studies demonstrate that chemical residues are similarly low in both (

The industry should take a cue from the organic foods industry, which charges a premium for products that are perceived to be of higher quality. Next, it should solicit some marketing expertise to determine if “value-added” catfish products would be purchased by U.S. consumers. Since we can increase the nutrients in catfish by altering their feed, farmed catfish can be a great vehicle for getting healthful nutrients into our diet. I suggest that some (maybe 5–10%) of the catfish that are produced be enhanced so that they provide added omega-3 fatty acids, astaxanthin, taurine, and minerals.

Research conducted at Texas A&M University has shown that increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the fish imparts a tuna-like taste. This does pose a challenge to an industry that markets a mild-tasting product. But would some consumers pay a bit more for a product that tastes a bit stronger but which benefits their baby’s brain and eyes? Will consumers buy this product if it protects their heart and slows cognitive decline later in life? Will they buy catfish that provides antioxidants to fight cancer and slow macular degeneration? Will they buy an innovative and highly nutritious catfish product that has been made with Southern pride?

We all want to see the domestic catfish industry succeed. But unless it innovates and successfully differentiates its products from low-cost imports, it will face the same fate as the small, early 20th century auto makers that were driven out of business by Henry Ford and his assembly line.


Charles R. Santerre, Ph.D., a Professional Member of IFT, is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and a Professor, College of Health and Human Sciences, Purdue University, W. Lafayette, IN 47907 ( [email protected] ).