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Am I Eating Poison Catfish

Updated on September 5, 2013
Gathering fish at MeKong catfish farm - Abstract design
Gathering fish at MeKong catfish farm - Abstract design | Source

Less than 2% of Imported Catfish is Inspected In The USA

When you think of 22,000 tons of industrial waste annually, you probably don't think about catfish. Well, maybe you should. The Mekong river runs through China, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. 85 million pounds of catfish was imported to the United States in 2009 straight from the Mekong river. (14 times the amount imported just 6 years earlier)Less than 2% of that 85 million pounds was inspected by the FDA. (Food and Drug Administration) The -2% that did get inspected, was found to be contaminated by carcinogens, salmonella and illegal veterinary pharmaceuticals.

Mekong River Farming Practices

The reasons for this contamination becomes very clear when we take a look at the farming practices that take place along the Mekong. Manufacturing plants that make beer or cement are found nestled tightly along the riverbanks, also found on these banks are residential homes and toilets, and a population that uses the river as a laundromat. Every day 100 tons of fish are being processed for exportation in this same river, side by side someones dirty undergarments. The Vietnamese government has given warning to these processing plants saying that their practices are not safe and fall dangerously short of health and safety standards required by the majority of importing countries, of which the USA is one of the largest.

Mekong River Route
Mekong River Route
Liquid dripping from a Mekong River waste pipeline.  image complements of
Liquid dripping from a Mekong River waste pipeline. image complements of

A farm bill that is written to change the responsibility of imported catfish regulation from the FDA to a more able and better equipped US Department of Agriculture is poised to take effect in late 2010. If you are a big catfish fan and would like to find better, safer and more strictly regulated versions of the spiky beast, you have choices available right here in the USA. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site says you can find the "country-of-origin" on grocery store seafood package labels. This gives you the reassurance that you are in-fact eating U.S. farm-raised catfish in loo of the imported product (imported basa and swai can be labeled as catfish, however they are NOT catfish). Utilizing the U.S. labeling will protect you from falling for any bait-and-switch tactics (you know I had to use that reference, right?) the exporting nation may use.

Arkansas offers the greatest number of catfish farms in the U.S. These farmers use stringent ecologically responsible and sustainable farming practices. The fish are raised in fresh water, eat a diet of corn and soybeans assuring healthy, nutritionally sound catfish.

Catfish Nutritian Chart (averaged over several types of catfish)

Polluted catfish farm tanks along the Mekong River.
Polluted catfish farm tanks along the Mekong River.

Catfish Worldwide


The catfish (channel cat) is one of the most important species of freshwater farm-raised fish in the United States, primarily in the South. A 2008 analysis found catfish to be the sixth most popular fish/seafood eaten by Americans; (shrimp, canned tuna, pollock and tilapia beat it in popularity). As defined by the National Fisheries Institute in 2009, 16 pounds of seafood per person was consumed as measured in 2008, 0.9 pounds of that was the mighty feline aqua-dweller, catfish.

January 1, 2010 found that an estimated 115,000 acres of ponds were dedicated to the rearing of catfish. This may sound like a large number, but it is in fact 22% lower than the previous year's 147,000 acres. July 2009 through December 2009 showed that 10,000 acres were removed from production as inventory numbers declined. The number of catfish farms reduced to 994 in 2009, leaving 312 operations out of business. (NASS 2010)


Yep. You read that right. August is national catfish month and is celebrated annually, in Belzoni, Mississippi, which happens to be the the catfish capital. The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, will be over-taken by the public in response to the dedicated day of recognition for its mascot, the catfish. NASCAR enthusiast will be tailgating, tasting and voting on the best catfish recipes provided during cook-offs as arranged by the drivers who are on circuit.

Murky Mekong Fish - Pollution Video - SCARY INFORMATION

Distribution of nutrients in catfish as compared to 750 other foods

(CLICK TO VIEW FULL SIZE) Chart of Nutrients found in catfish
(CLICK TO VIEW FULL SIZE) Chart of Nutrients found in catfish

Basa is the Bain of the USA Catfish Industry, and Here's why;


In faraway places like Vietnam and Thailand we find a farm-raised species of catfish called basa. It is giving the United States catfish farmers a run for their money. This top competitor with the U.S. market looks and taste like catfish. The trouble begins when we take a look at the 10 to 20 percent less these countries can charge for the product, which is finding a regular place in many coveted markets such as Europe.

When facts and figures around the gossip of mislabeling find their way into the realm of reality, basa's real impact on the U.S. market may be uncovered rather than speculated. Many feel that taking the word of import statistics from the U.S. government may fall very short of the true impact basa is having.

According to the National Marine Service reports, the United States imported a record 30 million pounds of basa in 2005, including 17.4 million pounds of frozen fillets from Vietnam. More than likely the true amount was far, far more. Since basa can not be sold as catfish legally, it comes in under the guise of "non-specific freshwater fish fillets" and has been intentionally mislabeled as another species. Many enter the country without any real inspection, however, now that the U.S. government is securing its borders these furtive measures may come to a sudden end.

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The Basa Invasion Continues...

With the knowledge that this catfish rival is embedded deep in the U.S. market to stay, measures to protect domestic industries would seem to have been less than effective as basa imports continue to enter the country. Where we can see the real story being told is in the domestic production demands - in 2005 the market was down to 600 million pounds, a drop of 662 million in 2003 and 630 million in 2004 - with sales in recent years finding nothing but stagnant numbers.

Producers in the United States have been fighting the basa issue in courtrooms and Congress. Now it would seem that is up to the consumer to take the extra step to find the "country-of-origin" labeling on packaging and from there decide for themselves to buy domestic or imported versions of the seafood royalty. In short, basa has apparently built its market on the U.S. catfish reputation, standing tall while it throws its hat in the ring; a viable contender that is likely to walk away with entire prize. As these cheap imports replace the foundation of American products—our agriculture—we see more clearly day by day that this is a battle our domestic producers can not afford to lose.

Catfish Trivia

7 Catfish Trivia Facts:

1). The external surface of the catfish is an amazing structure as is the rest of this tasty fish. Its slippery skin does more than cast a handsome reflection; it breathes and taste the life around it while stretching to huge dimensions on its way to record sizes. All of these amazing attributes are rewarded by humans who organize "catfish festivals" and "eating contest" around the USA in celebration of the culinary offerings the catfish brings.

2). To start with, you will find 'taste buds' on the outside of the catfishs' body, some of which reside on their barbels—on a fish a barbel is a slender, whisker like tactile organ near the mouth. Fishthat have barbels include the catfish, carp, goatfish, sturgeon, and some species of shark. They house the taste buds of such fish and are used to search for food in murky water—allowing the catfish to taste things simply by touching them. The naked (in most varieties) mucus-covered skin also is used in cutaneous respiration, helping the fish breath through its skin.

World record catfish are always an exciting catch!
World record catfish are always an exciting catch! | Source

3). Next, we discover that catfish will continue to grow if allowed, providing that the environment is healthy enough to support such growth and the food supply is ample. Worth noting is that the fish is not limited in its growth potential by the 'size' of the environment, this is a wives tale. Scientists have placed young fish in small tubes, supplied fresh flowing water and nutrition. The growth was expected to be stunted, however this did not occur. The fish actually outgrew the size of the tube provided. The largest blue catfish caught on record in Illinois, weighed in at a whopping 124 pounds. Then we have the largest flathead catfish caught on record by Ken Paulie on the Withlacoochee river in Florida May 14,1998 which weighed in at just one pound shy of the Illinois behemoth. In July 2009, an 11-year old British girl, caught a 193 pound murky-dweller in the River Ebro, Spain.

4). But, if we are looking for the absolute largest catfish on record the above sizes are minuscule at best. The giant Mekong catfish that was caught in northern Thailand May 1, of 2005 has to take the prize. It was reported to the press close to two months after the event, but weighed in at a staggering 650 pounds and is the largest caught since 1981, when record keeping began. Until recently the Mekong catfish has not been well studied due to its location in developing countries and is thought to grow even larger than the recorded 650 pounder!

5). Finally, we have Paris,Tennessee where the "worlds biggest fish fry" boasts being held. An approximate 12,500 pounds of catfish is said to be consumed by dedicated catfish lovers during the six day festival. It began in 1953 and has grown over the years to include parades, square dances, a car show and if all goes as planned, a catfish race.

6). Belonging to the carp-like fish family, the catfish can be found all over the world, being labeled as such is defined by its pairs of barbels and its webbers apparatus—the Weber's apparatus connects the hearing organ with the swim bladder where it operates as a sounding board thus amplifying sounds—Unlike other fish, catfish do not have scales, which may be in part why we find them so appealing as a consumable food source. Some catfish do have an armour like exterior or bony plates to protect them from predators as well as environmental dangers. They are a nocturnal beast usually only coming out at night to hunt or scavenge.

7). Catfish are negatively buoyant due to a reduced gas bladder—swim(gas) bladder contains gas, creating an air space with a different density from the rest of the fish—and their heavy, bony head which causes them to sink rather than float, hence the reason for their bottom feeding.They come in a variety of body shapes. One of the more popular shapes is the globoid—think goldfish—but most are cylindrical with a flat-belly or 'ventrum' allowing for benthic—suction—feeding.

10 Playful Catfish Facts

  1. Farmed Catfish are raised in ponds that measure as shallow as 4 feet.
  2. In the wild catfish are bottom feeders, whereas farm raised catfish are trained to eat pellets that float on the surface of the water.
  3. At 4 inches in length, catfish are labeled 'fingerlings' because they are about the same size as a human index finger.
  4. For every pound of body weight a catfish has it can lay about 4,000 eggs per year.
  5. Baby catfish are called 'sac fry' because they continue to live off of the nutrients in the yolk sac.
  6. Catfish are gathered by nets when they are between 1 and 1-1/2 pounds in weight.
  7. Catfish is the 6Th most popular fish in America.
  8. Catfish is available all year round.
  9. In 2009, 85 million pounds of catfish was imported to the USA from the Mekong river.
  10. Approximately 95% of the domestic (USA) catfish have been farm raised in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.


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