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Vietnamese catfish prevail over American variety in taste test

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Vietnamese basa catfish may be better eatin' than the channel cats farmed in the United States, according to studies comparing the two.

Not only are they just as good for you as fish that are legally labeled ``catfish,'' but basa were preferred in a taste test 3-to-1, say researchers at Mississippi State University.

The studies were begun in 2002 at the height of the ``catfish wars.'' U.S. catfish farmers and others were describing basa as an inferior product that had flooded the American market, partly because of lax labeling laws.

During discussions of his federal farm bill amendment that year, which allowed only native species to be labeled catfish, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas called basa ``these so-called catfish.'' Hugh Warren, president of the Mississippi-based Catfish Farmers of America, described the import as low-quality fish that are not even in the same family as U.S. farm-raised catfish.

There are 37 families of catfish worldwide, and thousands of species in those families. They range from tiny bloodsuckers found in the Amazon to the critically endangered plant-eating Mekong giant catfish, with a known record of 771 pounds.

``It's easy enough to deal with naming, as they did with tuna fish _ bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, albacore tuna,'' said John Lundberg, curator of icthyology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. ``A tuna's a tuna, and a catfish is a catfish.''

Physical characteristics, including DNA tests and the ``whiskers'' that give them their name, show the relationship.

Catfish farmers won their claim that Vietnam had illegally flooded their market by selling basa below cost in 2002 and got hefty tariffs imposed. Earlier that year, they got state legislatures and Congress to agree the ``catfish'' label would be allowed only on packages of the native U.S. species.

That still left the question of whether basa was inferior. Doug L. Marshall, a professor of food science and technology at Mississippi State, and graduate student Amit Pal looked at 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 groceries.

``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 U.S. fish were a bit fattier, he said.

But when qualities like appearance, aroma, taste, texture and overall liking were compared, three-quarters of the 58 untrained testers in the blind tasting preferred basa, he said.

He cautioned that the panel was small, and the fish a ``grab sample,'' perhaps not representative of a year's worth of purchases.

The tasters were from around the Mississippi State campus. ``The majority of these, of course, are regular consumers of catfish. It's not like they're unfamiliar with the products,'' Marshall said.

As might be expected in an area where fried catfish is almost a staple, they preferred fried to baked, whatever the species. But fried basa got better scores overall, as well as for texture and flavor, when compared to fried local catfish. And baked basa fillets got better taste scores than baked channel cats, too.

``Based on these results, attempts should be made by the domestic catfish industry to improve the eating quality of their products, which will help insure competitiveness in the international marketplace,'' their study concludes.

Ross, the Arkansas congressman, did not believe the results, however. ``I can clearly tell you the difference between a farm-raised catfish from Arkansas, Louisiana or Mississippi and a basa fillet that was raised in a polluted river in Vietnam,'' he said.

Warren, of the Catfish Farmers of America, said, ``I have no problem at all with somebody's personal taste. I have my own individual taste.''
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