Mississippi, Louisiana: States work to find illegal catfish

Shipments of Asian fish labeled as catfish are making their way to the land of U.S. farm-raised catfish, but agricultural officials in Mississippi and Louisiana are intent on stopping the shipments in their tracks.

In Mississippi, approximately 9,000 pounds of imported catfish valued at approximately $20,000 was recently flagged for non-compliance with state labeling laws. Louisiana state officials have stopped the sale of more than 315,000 pounds of fish labeled “Chinese catfish.”

According to Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell, the catfish were a product of China and labeled as “farm-raised.” Under Mississippi law, catfish originating from outside the United States are required to be specifically labeled as “imported catfish” to be offered for direct retail sale by a processor, distributor, wholesaler, or retailer.

“It is confusing to consumers when they see the word ‘catfish’ on something that does not meet the legal definition of catfish,” Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Bob Odom says. “Our weights and measures inspectors are out enforcing this law so consumers can have confidence that the catfish they buy is exactly what they expect it to be and where they expect it to come from.”

Consumers perceive “farm-raised” catfish as being grown in Mississippi or other Southern states, Spell says. “People have the right to know where food is coming from. The intent of the catfish labeling law in Mississippi is to distinguish U.S.- and Mississippi-produced catfish from that which is imported. Labeling imported catfish as farm-raised in Mississippi is against the law. We enforce it to protect consumers and the industry that was founded here in Mississippi.”

The illegally imported fish find in Mississippi was triggered by reports of labeling violations in Louisiana, which instigated an investigation by the Consumer Protection Division of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Odom says catfish is a Southern delicacy and consumers have come to expect a certain quality and taste in the catfish they purchase. He also said that a rash of mislabeled catfish products imported into the United States in recent years has hit the catfish industry hard.

“There were all kinds of fish coming in here labeled as ‘catfish,’ ‘farm-raised’ and ‘Cajun’ and unsuspecting consumers purchased it thinking they were getting domestic farm-raised catfish,” Odom said. “We finally got some relief for the industry and protection for consumers when the legislature passed a labeling law specifically defining catfish.”

The Louisiana cases of imported fish were found in New Orleans at Conco Food Distributors, Louisiana Seafood Exchange and New Orleans Perishables. In Baton Rouge, the product was found at Southern Cold Storage and Louisiana Seafood Exchange. Fresher Foods owns a small amount of the fish stored at Southern Cold Storage, and the remaining fish is owned by Piazza Seafood. Some imported product sold by Piazza was also stopped about three weeks ago at Hollywood Casino in Shreveport.

Piazza's Seafood World in Harahan, La., also distributed the mislabeled product in Mississippi, with the initial stop sale order occurring at Sysco. State officials say the food distribution company Sysco has cooperated with inspectors. Currently, 600 cases of the imported fish are being held at the Hinds County distribution center in Jackson, Miss.

The number of cases of illegally imported fish will probably increase, Odom said, as inspectors continue their investigation.

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