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   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 Calonica “iPura 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
Is Swai Safe – 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
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 June 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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