Free Trade

Catfish Terror

Thinly disguised protectionism.


Since mid-August, bureaucrats in Alabama and Louisiana have shown a profound concern over the health risks of Vietnamese catfish, known as basa. State governments are so concerned, in fact, that they've decided to ban basa altogether. Explained Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, "I will do whatever I have to protect the consumer."

Entirely by coincidence, the two states are the largest producers of U.S. catfish–and they've been losing ground to imports for a decade. To make matters worse, a University of Mississippi study, released in July, found that consumers prefer the taste of cheap Vietnamese basa to domestic catfish by a ratio of 3 to 1. Weeks after the report was released, the fish was banned in both states.

State agricultural commissions claim the Vietnamese variety is dangerous, pointing to fish in Westwago, Louisiana, that tested positive for an antibiotic that is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in agriculture. The antibiotic poses no danger, but regulators say it could–in very large doses–conceivably lead to resistance to antibiotics in humans.

That doesn't explain why the states chose to ban all Vietnamese basa, rather than simply trace the tainted ones back to the specific supplier that sent them stateside. Perhaps to explicate the need for dramatic action, at least one fishery specialist, speaking to the Mobile Register, has invoked the looming threat of catfish "bioterrorism."

The FDA has refused Alabama's request to extend the ban nationwide. It remains to be seen whether the Department of Homeland Security will take the bait.