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Fish of a Feather
Why is Vietnamese catfish cheaper than the American variety? Our columnist criticizes the hypocrisy of global trade rules—and shares the results of his taste test
Aug. 4 —  I went to the fish store to buy something healthy for dinner and suddenly found myself in the middle of the Vietnam War. 
       Like most Americans, when I shop, my main consideration is price. Sure, I enjoy salmon and Dover sole as much as the next man—but the next man is usually some guy who just sold his screenplay for six figures and can afford to blow a wad on some fancy fish.
       So naturally, my eyes headed for the cheaper selections. To my confusion, there were two varieties of catfish, but at markedly different prices. For $2.99, I could get a pound of Vietnamese catfish, while $3.99 bought me a pound of “southern-raised” American catfish. At those prices, I chose the Vietnamese catfish. It seemed like the capitalist thing to do.
       Unfortunately, not all capitalists agree. In fact, the capitalists who run the U.S. government believe the opposite. So our leaders—the same leaders who are constantly singing the praises of “free trade”—are trying again to defeat the Vietnamese, this time in the marketplace rather than the jungle.
       The first salvos in this Catfish War were fired last year, when the Republican Congress defied every scientist in the country and ruled that only American catfish can be marketed as “catfish” in the United States while Vietnamese catfish must be called “basa” or “tra.”
       Of course, defying science is nothing new for a ruling party that edits out evidence of global warming from internal EPA documents. But I had to be sure, so I emailed a dozen catfish experts [All Catfish Species Inventory participants] and every single one of them—seriously, all of them—said that American catfish (which belong to the Ictaluridae family of Siluriformes) and Vietnamese catfish (which are in the Pangasiidae family of Siluriformes) are, in fact, all catfish. The worst part of Congress’s American “catfish” law was that it smelled a bit French. After all, our beloved allies are the ones who are always telling us that California sparkling wine isn’t genuine “Champagne.”
       But despite Congress’s name game, Vietnamese basa and tra exports eventually captured 20 percent of the American market. Even supposedly patriotic American restaurants down south were serving the stuff. American catfish farmers fought back, with a multi-pronged assault, some of it fair (pointing out our higher labor costs and more-rigorous environmental standards), some of it not fair (the Catfish Farmers of America claimed that Vietnamese catfish were unclean because they “float around in Third World rivers nibbling on who knows what”).
       Into the “not fair” category waded one Arkansas Congressman, Democrat Marion Berry, who even went so far as to say that Vietnamese catfish couldn’t be wholesome because of all the Agent Orange we introduced into the country’s ecosystem four decades ago.
       But that extremely loud whisper campaign failed to curtail Vietnamese imports. So last month, the inaccurately named International Trade Commission (inaccurate because it’s actually an arm of the U.S. government) slapped 64 percent tariffs on the Vietnamese catfish. No surprise there; our government, which is supposedly so committed to free trade, does this all the time whenever our industries lose to foreigners. Earlier this year, we put tariffs on Chinese crawfish meat. Now, Louisiana shrimpers are seeking tariffs against their Central American competitors. And our textile industry is lobbying hard for stiffer barriers to Chinese garments.
       Not to give you a headache, but these trade wars are complicated. Certainly, free trade helps American consumers by lowering prices (a dollar less per pound of catfish at my store). And free trade can help stabilize developing economies (as in Mexico and, yes, Vietnam) by creating new industries, employment opportunities and, perhaps, a new middle class that will clamor for a corruption-free, environmentally sound, democratically elected government.
       But the low cost of imported goods undermines American producers, who are forced to charge more because they pay higher wages and conform to (thankfully) strict environmental and workplace-safety regulations. Watering down those regs might make fish cheaper nationwide, but at a concomitant reduction in the quality of life in the regions where it’s raised.
       Commentators on all sides have weighed in, but no one has answered the most-important question: How does Vietnamese catfish taste compared to American catfish? Sure, low prices are enticing, but what if the Vietnamese fillets really do taste like defoliant? Naturally, I had to embark on one of my famous fact-finding missions, so I called two of New York’s top chefs, Scott Campbell of @SQC and Waldy Malouf of Beacon. I like both of these guys because I can just show up unannounced with a few pounds of fish and they’ll fire up the Viking. In a city where chefs have become such celebrities that they have their own publicists, agents, lackeys and reality shows, Campbell and Malouf are more refreshing than the red peach sorbet at Blue Fin (er, I mean, I hear it’s refreshing).
       In a tribute to the catfish’s southern heritage, Campbell breaded the fillets with flour and grits and pan-fried them with a touch of Fleur de Sel (in honor of the French role in both Vietnam and Louisiana). They were delicious—moist, tender and flaky—not that Campbell could really tell which was which.
       “They’re both mild, dense, smooth, fairly tasteless fish,” he said. “Regular consumers won’t be able to tell any difference. Catfish is a fast-food fish.”
       Malouf, whose restaurant specializes in open-fire cooking, spooned chervil and lemon juice over the fillets and popped them into his 725-degree, wood-burning hearth. This type of cooking favors the Southern catfish, which is slightly thicker and, therefore, can stay in the oven longer.
       “That lets it caramelize more,” Malouf said, predicting an easy victory the American catfish. But Malouf ate those words seconds later when he pronounced the Vietnamese and the Southern varieties fish of a feather.
       “They’re both mushy and plain,” he said. “They really have no flavor, which is what Americans seem to want in a fish. But I don’t discern a real difference in taste.”
       At that point, Malouf asked the waitress to bring him a glass of something he identified as Chardonnay. I just asked for a glass of white wine.
       “The wine will bump up the flavor,” he said. I noticed a profound improvement from my first sip. By the third bottle, I was convinced that catfish was the best thing I had ever tasted.
       I went home and took a nap and when I woke up, it was dark, so I went back to bed. But when I woke up the next morning, I decided to put my mouth where my money is. The cruel, cold capitalist in me will still always seek out the cheaper Vietnamese catfish. That’s only fair in a market economy like ours. But the bleeding heart liberal in me is more than willing to pay an extra buck a pound to support our catfish industry, which plays by the rules and observes strict governmental regulation that don’t even exist elsewhere.
       But neither side of me will buy any GOP hypocrisy. Free trade was supposedly going to lower prices at home while increasing living standards in places like Vietnam, which, in turn, would promote democratic values. At least, that’s what President Bush is always saying about free trade and he can’t possibly be wrong, can he?
Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at
        © 2003 Newsweek, Inc.