The catfish industry is targeting Texas as the next state to adopt country-of-origin labeling legislation. The Catfish Institute's president Robert Barlow is now in Texas, rallying support for a bill introduced by state Senator Glenn Hegar. The proposed law, modeled after similar legislation already on the books in five Southeastern states, would require restaurants to inform customers whether the catfish they're serving is imported or domestic.
"The health threat posed by imported catfish and the federal government's lack of adequate inspections require us to act in the best interest of Texas by requiring restaurants to disclose whether they are serving imported catfish," Hegar explained in a recent op-ed column for the Austin American-Statesman.
U.S. catfish producers, whose sales have been decimated by imports, claim Asian catfish are raised in filthy waters and treated with dangerous chemicals.
Texas is among the top five catfish-producing states, but lags far behind the leaders. Only 2,900 acres of Texas land are devoted to catfish production, compared with 100,000 acres in Mississippi.
But Texas is a top priority for the catfish industry because of the amount of catfish eaten here.
"There's more catfish consumed in Texas than any other state in the country by a long shot," says Taylor Webb, spokesman for the Catfish Farmers of America. "That's the motivation right there."
The catfish industry this year is also making a legislative push in Kentucky, another Southern state where fried catfish is exceedingly popular.
Mississippi in 2008 became the first state to enact a county-of-origin labeling law, supplementing federal regulations that require supermarkets to disclose fish sourcing. While there haven't been any formal studies measuring whether the rules are resulting in increased consumer awareness or -- more pertinently -- improved domestic catfish sales, Taylor says being forced to post "made in Asia" signage has persuaded at least a few major fish sellers to switch to U.S. farm-raised catfish.
"Captain D's had locations where it said 'made in China' and people didn't like that," Taylor says. "It was leading to declining sales."
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Taylor says casinos in Mississippi experienced a similar change of heart after guests reacted to the signs on their buffets.
According to Taylor, 90 percent of consumers say they'd prefer to eat U.S. farm-raised catfish. Many of them mistakenly assume that's what they're getting at restaurants.
"A broad range of people want to know where their food is coming from," Taylor says.