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Is Vietnamese Swai and Basa Safe?

Swai-Iridescent shark photo
Image from the Wikimedia Commons. Photo information available here

Is Swai and Basa safe?  Wow!  What a loaded question surrounded by mystery, power, intrigue and deceit.  I had to do a lot of reading for this one.  First, let’s set the stage.  There is a lot of negative information (mostly false) about catfish from Vietnam (Basa & Swai), including a very inflammatory video saying that the fish are raised in filth ridden cesspools of pollution and sold to the US market.  Most of this information is propaganda.

The Start of the Catfish Wars

In 2002 the catfish industry found that they had lost 20% of catfish sales to Vietnamese catfish.  In response, the Catfish Farmers of America did what has become all too common in America today… they shed their integrity and lobbied, whined and complained to Congress to pass some sort of legislation which would hinder or outlaw their competition.  They asked Congress to pass a law which would define market place “catfish” in the U.S. as being only the “Channel Catfish” species which they raised.   It was an unethical move which unfortunately Congress supported.  In 2003 Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott introduced a measure in the U.S. Senate – through an obscure amendment attached to an unrelated appropriations bill – which stated that only the U.S. species of catfish could be called “catfish” in the U.S. market place.

Congress passed this law and made it illegal for any of the other 2000+ varieties of scientifically recognized catfish to be sold in the U.S., including (especially) Vietnamese catfish.  It was after this legislation that Vietnamese Catfish was re-marketed as Basa and Swai or Tra.

Additionally, Congress also placed high tariffs on the import of Vietnamese Basa & Swai.  There is some evidence that the Vietnamese government subsidized these fish farms so that the product could be sold to the US market at below cost prices in order to edge-out U.S. catfish.  There may be good evidence to support this charge, but you’ll have to research this part yourself to determine its veracity.

Catfish Wars Failure

Despite these setbacks and all the negative marketing (kind of like an election campaign!), Vietnamese catfish (Basa and Swai) was still the 10th most popular seafood among U.S. consumers in 2009.  And in several blind tastings [1] [2] people preferred Basa over U.S. Catfish. 

Additionally, an independent study on the safety, nutrition and taste of Vietnamese catfish was done by Doug Marshall, a professor of food science and technology at Mississippi State, and graduate student at Amit Pal.  He evaluated Basa and Channel Catfish by asking three questions: Did one have more bacteria than the other? How about nutrition? What about taste?

The frozen imports were compared to frozen, farm-raised channel catfish from local grocery stores.  "Both fish were about the same in terms of quality and safety indicators," Marshall said. Also, nutritionally, both fish were about the same, though the US fish were a bit fattier" he said.

In another article dated 2001 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.”  The Vietnamese operations were vastly better than what they had expected.

Catfish Farmers Try New Tactic in Catfish War

In 2008, seeing that Basa & Swai were becoming threats again to the catfish industry, the catfish lobby went back to congress with a new agenda.  They had complained six years ago that if was not fair for the Vietnamese to call their fish “catfish” and lobbied Congress to make it illegal to do so.  It didn’t work, so now they complained that they want Basa and Swai to be forced to be called catfish!  This change would create a lot of red tape which would hurt the Vietnamese import while they scramble to implement changes established by the new law.   

The U.S. catfish industry also lobbied to have the oversight of imported catfish changed from the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Agriculture.  Since negotiating international agreements on food inspections usually takes two to five years, this change could mean Vietnamese Basa and Swai imports are barred until negotiations are completed.  The U.S. catfish lobby is simply trying to legislate the elimination of their competition.

In October 2010 the Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) started a new media campaign with a TV ad.  The 30-second ad shows a woman serving two children a meal. “Did you know only 2 percent of imported seafood is inspected? The Mekong River in Vietnam, full of contaminants, sends us 100 million pounds of catfish each year, and 98 percent gets served for dinner un-inspected,” she says. “Congress voted to fix this problem, but the White House won’t act. Mr. President, please, make our families’ health and safety your No. 1 concern.”

The National Fisheries Institute (NTI) responded by accusing the CFA of once again distorting the truth and attempting to scare U.S. consumers into purchasing only U.S. raised catfish.  The NFI further said that this new ad is “filled with half-truths and hypocrisy”.

 “This is just another sad chapter in a special interest’s effort to keep choices from the American consumer. Imported fish undergoes the same strict safety controls that domestic catfish has undergone for more than 10 years,” said NFI President John Connelly. “In the past decade seafood, both imported and domestic, has enjoyed an excellent food-safety record because the public health professionals regulating seafood at the FDA know their jobs. Claiming this is anything other than a trade issue is as laughable as the exaggerated concern seen in this ad.”

The Bottom Line on Swai and Basa Safety

A highly inflammatory video regarding Basa farming is popular on YouTube.  I believe that much of this video is propaganda to keep Americans buying US catfish.  Although I support buying American products, I don't believe that every Vietnamese aqua farmer is raising fish in sewage and that the US allows them to dump their filth into our food system.  Have you been visited by the health inspector lately?  Do you really believe they would allow sewage infested fish into the country?  Someone is being deceitful.

Bottom line--know and trust your vendor and supplier.  If it is a major food supply company like Sysco (who sells Swai from the Mekong River), they have a multi-million dollar insurance policy simply to protect their customers from the ramifications of bad food.  Companies such as this use highly integrated tracking systems and require traceability through-out the entire food chain back to the original source.  They are not going to purchase a product which is unhealthy, dangerous, poisonous, polluted, or in some other way liable to cost them a law suit.

Another reputable company is iPura.  According to iPura Director of Business Development Ron CalonicaiPura products are monitored throughout the food chain all the way to delivery. Products are tested at the grow-out ponds before they are allowed into the plant and then retested during processing before packaging in a clean room that is cleaner than a hospital surgical room, reducing the chances for cross contamination; it is then monitored with temperature chips during transportation and cold storage. This ensures that data is accumulated, stored, and made available upon request, which allows the tracking system to validate that the product has not lost its integrity throughout the entire process of getting it to the end user.”

“One of the nicest features iPura delivers is cleaner safer sustainable seafood that can be trusted. All iPura products are insured 110% against regulatory interventions such as recalls, rejection, etc." Ron says.  "The only reason that iPura qualifies for that type of insurance is because of the extraordinary steps taken to ensure that the product is clean and free of dangerous pathogens, etc., insurers realize that their risk has been reduced tremendously. Retailers love it because they realize that iPura helps protects their image and brand.  Food Safety is Good Business!

Many companies, including iPura, use Trace Register to track the products they purchase and redistribute.  Trace Register operates out of Seattle, but has offices throughout the world.  Founded in 2005, Trace Register grew from a simple yet ambitious idea. What if we could trust what we buy, every time we buy—that it won’t make us sick; that it is what it says on the label; that it does not damage the planet, harm the community, or exploit the people producing it?

After extensive research and development, the Trace RegisterTM system was introduced as a powerful yet pragmatic solution for food traceability. Ours is a system that:

  • Any company can use without the need to invest in expensive, proprietary technology.
  • Captures and shares information about all types of food at every step of the supply chain.
  • Enhances the physical supply chain with an “information supply chain” that connects all trading partners from source to market.
  • Incorporates the latest technology, standards, and advances in food production 

Additional Reading:

November 2001 Buyer’s Guide-Basa Catfish  - Seafood Business Magazine November 2001
US 'catfish war' defeat stings Vietnam – Asia Times July 2003
Vietnam has tastier fish than US – iOL New July 2005
Catfish Wars: Why Is U.S. Blocking Capitalist Progress in Vietnam? – Fox News February 2006
Does Imported Catfish Pose a Health Risk? – Food Safety News February 2010
What will come of Vietnamese pangasius? – SeafoodSource.com March 2010
NFI: U.S. catfish lobby distorting truth - SeafoodSource.com October 2010
Demand for certified-responsible fish growing – SeafoodSource.com November 2010
Regulatory hurdles and name changes have so far not stopped this import’s rising popularity - Seafood Business Magazine April 2011
For Pangasius, sky's the limit - SeafoodSource.com April 2011

Eating Humble (Fish) Pie - by Struan Stevenson in Qualasa Expertise
Special Interest Catfish Lobby's Distortion Compulsion - SeafoodSource.com July 2011
Faux Food Safety Scare At The Heart Of Lobbying Effort - AboutSeafood.com
American Catfish Farmers Want Vietnamese Catfish to be Called Catfish - Village Voice  Dec 2009
Catfishy: Vietnamese Species Embroiled in Identity Crisis- The Wall Street Journal 
Dec 2009
The Senate Should Abandon Protectionist Inspections Aimed at Catfish from Vietnam - CSIS Nov 2013
$20M Wasted? Two U.S. Agencies Tasked With Inspecting Catfish - ABC News Aug 2013
U.S. Risking Trade War with Vietnam over Catfish - CSIS June 2011

 

 

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Comments [ Add a Comment ]

DARLA [174.131.40.174] [ Apr 18 ]

I did find this information useful!!

STEVIE [8.17.116.254] [ Mar 13 ]

Hey Babinski...by your logic, every small business owner in the US should have a claim to shut down walmart. Sorry, but that's not how this works. In the new world, businesses (and countries) complete and as long as we are trading partners with Vietnam, they will continue to market their superior catfish.

DAVID BUCHANAN [ Dec 27, 2013 ]

You are welcome to submit a rebuttal to this article. To be posted on this site it:

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Here are some suggested topics and/or questions to address:

  • What is the historical impact of swai upon the catfish industry? (including dates, volume of sales, and links for verification)
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  • How do you refute all the links for additional reading which are mentioned?
  • Are unethical business practices acceptable? Do the ends justify the means?

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DAVID BUCHANAN [ Dec 27, 2013 ]

BABINSKIBABS -The article is not meant to be an attack upon catfish farmers or the catfish business. Rather it is an exposé of the unscrupulous tactics used by the catfish lobby to promote that business.

I completely agree with two of your points… catfish farmers are hard workers. There is no question that catfish farming is a difficult industry. I also agree that business owners have the right to protect and promote their businesses. The point of the article is the unethical means by which the catfish lobby protects their business. Are you saying that unscrupulous business practices are fine so long as they're against foreign competitors? Or perhaps unsavory business practices are acceptable for all businesses?

These are the main points the article addresses:
 
1) the unethical behavior of the catfish lobby.

2) the hypocrisy of modifying the rules in order to gain advantage. Example, in 2003 forcing Vietnamese catfish to call it something other than catfish because it competes too well. Then in 2008 trying to force them to change the name back to catfish again because the new branded name (Swai, Basa) competes too well. Utter hypocrisy!
 
3) using taxpayer dollars to get Congress to force a competitor out of business.
Trying to change inspections from the FDA to the USDA is another means by the catfish lobby to impede their competition. This would cost millions of dollars at the expense of US taxpayers in order to fund the US catfish business. Why should my tax dollars fund the promotion of your business?

4) the use of a negative propaganda campaign, much like polititians do, to promote the catfish industry and discredit their competitors.

I feel no SHAME for pointing out the abuses named. And as for bias, simply go to any American Catfish Lobby sponsored site...you'll find plenty of bias there.

See the next comment about submitting a rebuttal to this article.

BABINSKIBABS@YAHOO.COM [72.135.16.218] [ Dec 27, 2013 ]

Of course Swai and Basa are popular with consumers, they are cheap.  Consumers do not always know the whole story.  If your family business was going under due to foreign competition, wouldn't you do everything to protect it?   This story was one sided and biased.  To call American Catfish Farmers whiners is low and unfair.  Catfish farmers work very hard and only want a level playing field.  If they hadn't gone to congress for help, there would be NO catfish farms in the US left.  Shame Shame Shame on you!  

ANTONY K [174.61.100.176] [ Oct 04, 2013 ]

Excellent article , thank you.Cleared up a couple of misconceptions and was informative.

A

SWAI HAI [66.25.78.216] [ Sep 10, 2013 ]

Have any of you ever even been to the Mekong region where these fish are produced? It is incredibly safe, cleaner than what you would find in many American facilities that's for certain! The Japanese and EU standards are higher than the USA, and now many farms and processors are certified for BAP (farm and packer), ASC, Global GAP, BRC, ISO, and others. There are many world class facilities there that exceed anything possible in America.

Pangasius for local consumption are grown in squalid conditions because the people live in squalid conditions. Commercial farms of enormous scale grow tens of thousands of fish in each pond. Swai are schooling fish so they naturally congregate and swim in dense schools. They are fed certified feed, which is traceable. 10% of the fish is used. All refuse of rendered down into food grade fish oil and fish meal.

The Mekong is an enormous watershed and the volume of water that flows through daily is amazing. It is the same color as the Mississippi River, the big muddy, loaded with nutrients from the Himalayan mountains and the jungles of Cambodia and Laos. I have been inside some of these factories there, they are enormous, with care given to cleanliness and product quality for the US market.

Are there some fly-by-night facilities? Yeah, they most likely serve the local market. you can take a video of this and then put it on the internet and create a completely false narrative. Who really wants to see Swai struggle? Most likely those with large vested interest in Tilapia. Swai is a far better fish to work with than Tilapia. The one thing Tilapia has working for it is it can be skinned and fillet by machine...Swai require thousands of workers with knives.

DAVID BUCHANAN [ Mar 30, 2013 ]

IMHO - Actually, major purveyors carry large insurance policies because someone is bound to make a mistake. I have heard of zero lawsuits resulting from illness related to swai or basa. But I have heard of lawsuits from the following US grown products: hamburger (e coli - Jack in the Box), fresh spinach (e coli), alfalfa sprouts (e coli), green onions (e coli).

I agree that just because a vendor has an insurance policy it doesn't mean we can trust them or that they have our best interests in mind. However, the majority of the negative press about swai and basa has come from the catfish lobby, catfish region politicians, and catfish farmers. Do you think they are more trustworthy than the food vendors?

I think that the bottom line is still the same...ask the right questions, trust no one without verification of trustworthiness and due diligence (whether it be swai fish, scallops, or the London Bridge!), and only eat/sell what you yourself are confident of.

IMHO [68.237.129.33] [ Mar 30, 2013 ]

"they have a multi-million dollar insurance policy simply to protect their customers from the ramifications of bad food"...

Nah - they have such a huge insurance policy to protect themselves, with the cost of insurance typically reflecting the risk. That large policy is not for the protection of consumers, assumed to be too broke for a lawyer anyway. Besides, I personally would rather have my health than money (if I survive) and have to live with the aftermath. Just because a corporation carries insurance does not indicate that I should eat their product.