The Squeeze Is On: Southern Fare, American Catfish And The Cost of Feed

For most of the U.S., catfish is just a curiosity. Catfish are slimy -- opposed to scaly -- and they look downright prehistoric. As a diehard Northeastern fisherman and cook, I like catfish. But in the South, fried catfish is a staple equivalent to turkey on Thanksgiving. And while times have been hard for most everyone these past few years, there are some comforts that become non-negotiable. For "Southern restaurant owners who draw big crowds with heaping platters of fried fish and hush puppies ... The American farm-raised catfish is proving an elusive catch..." according to yesterday's WSJ.

The days of local markets and restaurants buying their fish from local fisherman are largely gone and farm raised fish has become big business worldwide. As such, feed prices dictate the wholesale and retail price of most fish and the cost of catfish has skyrocketed. According to the Journal "Rising grain prices and cheaper imports have forced many domestic catfish farmers out of business, creating a shortage of American fish that has pushed prices up." And while "the price paid to surviving catfish farmers was up 31% in February compared with a year ago, according to the USDA, farmers are still struggling with higher production costs."

Incredibly, the WSJ reports that "about 70% of the $403 million annual crop of U.S.-raised catfish goes to restaurants" and "Jim Brevard, owner of the Reel Thing Catfish Cafe in Allen, Texas ... reluctantly raised the price of a fried catfish platter with two sides from $8.99 to $9.99, putting even more pressure on strapped consumers." He claims to have "had people who dined with [him] three times per month, ... are now down to once a month." So what about non-American catfish? Fugettaboutat, as might be said if this were New York cuisine.

Even though "the price of catfish feed [has] doubled over the past four years", the "National Fisheries Institute, a trade organization representing seafood importers, [says] that international rivals are just as healthy as homegrown fish [and] Domestic producers have launched a war against their import competition that includes a great deal of misinformation" according to the article. One restaurant owner is quoted saying "That's one of the big issues with my customers -- that we serve American farm-raised catfish ... I wouldn't serve Chinese fish."

Hmmm. Perhaps catfish catering restaurants should give their customers a price point choice between the two sources.

- William Busch

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