An international fight over catfish could undo U.S. relations with the third-largest foreign buyer of American beef.
Catfish farmers in the Mississippi Delta want to block importation of pangasius fish from Vietnam. The fish are similar, although pangasius sells for considerably less.
The Vietnamese, who shipped $77 million in seafood to the United States last year, are crying foul. They haven't flatly stated that U.S. imports hang in the balance, but they are hinting that's the case, said Jason Carver, trade expert with the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.
Carver and staff members for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., will be in Billings on Tuesday to brief agriculture groups about the fish flap and other trade issues.
Vietnam has become a crucial customer for U.S. beef as concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, killed exports elsewhere. The country bought 49 million pounds of U.S. beef through the first three months of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's a 72 percent increase over the same period in 2008 and comes as sales decline to six of America's top 10 foreign customers. Vietnam bought $2.8 billion of American beef last year.
"It's been a real good market to expand, especially since 2003 with the shutout in Japan and South Korea," said Errol Rice, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
Montana beef has done well in Vietnam and the Asian Pacific because its age and origins are documented well enough to meet customers' safety concerns, Rice said. Vietnam is not a market ranchers can afford to lose.
Several agriculture leaders in Montana said Friday that they knew too little about the catfish trade to comment, including one who said he would never eat a fish that wasn't pictured on a beer can.
Baucus has been key to promoting American trade with Vietnam. He met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in December to encourage the country to allow more imports of U.S. beef, offering to extend tariff-free benefits to the country if it did.
In a statement issued Friday, the senator said he's working with Vietnam and the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to keep trade flowing.
"The Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction over international trade, and I want to ensure all of the folks that trade with the United States and Montana get a fair shake," Baucus said. "I'm working with Secretary Vilsack to make sure we move forward with a solution that will work for everyone."
The catfish battle spoiled for years. In 2002, the American catfish lobby persuaded Congress to prohibit the foreign pangasius from being labeled as catfish. Mississippi Delta catfish farmers argued that pangasius was being mislabeled and marketed unfairly as catfish for a cheaper price.
Now U.S. catfish farmers are flip-flopping. They want pangasius labeled as a catfish so it will have to meet tighter inspection standards, a move they say is about public safety not trade barriers.
The national Fisheries Institute, which is siding with Vietnam, says it would take years for the United States to set up an inspection system for the Vietnamese fish, during which pangasius wouldn't be sold in the United States.