The games continued for more than a decade. In the fall of 1999, I had dinner at the Pappadeaux restaurant in Fort Worth. The waiter announced that the day's fish were salmon, mahimahi and snapper.
"Gulf snapper or Pacific red snapper?" I asked.
"Actually, it's bay snapper," the waiter told me. I had never heard of bay snapper before. After 20 questions, the waiter summoned a manager, who gave me the usual runaround.
"It's a snapper that's not found in the Gulf, but in the bays along the Gulf," he said. I have been fishing in the Gulf for years. I knew I was being hoodwinked, but I ate the fish anyway. It wasn't as tasty as Gulf red snapper, but not as mushy as Pacific rockfish. It wasn't until I started researching this story that I figured out what it actually was.
"About ten years ago, they decided sheepshead was an unappetizing name and so they started calling it bay snapper," Jim Gossen at Louisiana Foods told me. Sheepshead is a very common (and very ugly) fish found in the Gulf. It typically sells for less than $4 a pound wholesale. It is not even vaguely related to the snapper family.
The two-piece catfish combo with two side dishes and hush puppies runs me $5.29 at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on West Bellfort. I take my tray to a Naugahyde booth amid a cluster of families out for an early dinner. The fish is slightly flakier than the catfish I'm used to, and it tastes a little stronger. When I've finished eating, I walk into manager Patrick Joseph's office.
"Are you serving Vietnamese catfish?" I ask him.
"No, it's farm-raised. It comes from Louisiana," he replies.
"But does the box say 'Product of Vietnam'?" I ask.
"I'm not sure," he admits.
"Let's go take a look," I suggest. To my surprise, Joseph agrees. He leads me back through the cafeteria's kitchen, warning me not to slip on the wet floors. Then he opens the door to the walk-in freezer. "Farm-raised," it says in large letters on the top of the box of catfish. I spin the case around. The small letters on the bottom of one side read "Product of Vietnam." The cafeteria manager is surprised to learn he was serving Vietnamese catfish.
Last summer, Representative Marion Berry, a democrat from Arkansas, introduced a bill that would require not only wholesalers but also restaurants and stores to correctly label fish -- not all fish, just Vietnamese catfish. In fact, the congressman threatened to withhold support for President Bush's free trade deals if stores and restaurants didn't start identifying this fish correctly. Berry isn't all that concerned with consumers' rights. It's his catfish farmer constituents he's really worried about. Trent Lott of Mississippi and five other Southern senators have joined the campaign on behalf of the U.S. catfish industry.
Vietnamese catfish is the hottest fish on the market right now. Imports tripled last year to seven million pounds -- already impressive. This year's total may be as high as 20 million. The frozen fillets sell for about 30 percent less than domestically raised catfish, which makes them cheaper by about a dollar a pound.
"It's turning up everywhere," laments Hugh Warren of the Catfish Farmers of America. "Prices are falling, we've lost 20 percent of our fillet market. We're going to lose our industry."
Raised in cages on the Mekong River, which Representative Berry claims is one of the most polluted waterways in the world, Vietnamese catfish are part of the extended catfish family, but they aren't the channel cats familiar to American consumers. The FDA has approved several names for the fish, including basa and Vietnamese catfish; the fish has also been sold under such names as Pacific dory and white roughy. But the main problem, as far as catfish farmers are concerned, is that most restaurants sell it as just plain catfish.
FDA requirements won't allow the fish to be labeled "catfish" without the modifier "Vietnamese" if it is sold in interstate commerce. (Vietnamese officials argue that the "Product of Vietnam" label on the box is identification enough.) But restaurants are under no compulsion to label the fish "Vietnamese."
"We can't even find a restaurant that admits they use Vietnamese catfish," Warren complains. "We did a telephone survey, and every restaurant we contacted swore they were using nothing but American farm-raised catfish. Two million pounds of Vietnamese catfish are coming into this country every month. You tell me where it's going!"