(WMC TV) - We're not just whistling Dixie, here.
I know we're making an example of The Dixie Cafe, 4699 Poplar Ave, for serving Vietnamese catfish.
The restaurant appears in violation of Tennessee law, too, for not disclosing its catfish as "imported" on its menus.
But in fairness to the establishment, we're sure there are more Mid-South restaurants that serve the cheaper catfish. Virtually every grocery outlet in the Mid-South also offers it, at least as a choice.
They all should be ashamed of themselves.
They should hang their heads because they know U.S. catfish farms are competing on an uneven playing field with Vietnamese catfish producers -- in production, quality control and inspection standards.
While the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) freely admits it manually inspects less than two percent of imported catfish, it inspects American farms like Tunica, MS's Pride of the Pond once a month -- on top of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce's inspections every 90 days.
Pride of the Pond's owner Bill Battle's fine with those inspections. He's not fine, though, with what appears to be the FDA's double-standard on imported catfish.
"With two percent being inspected -- and a high percentage rejected -- you know a lot is getting through that has the bad chemicals in them," Battle said.
He's referring to chemicals used to artificially expand the density of catfish populations -- chemicals banned in the States, but allowed in Vietnam. Despite being a hemisphere away, Battle said Vietnamese catfish is cheaper because of artificially inflated inventories, cheap labor and heavy government subsidies.
"If the American consumer knew what they were buying, I don't think (Vietnamese catfish) could compete," said Battle.
FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky told Action News 5 in regard to catfish imports, "The FDA manually inspects 1 to 2 percent of products entering the United States, but the agency electronically examines 100 percent of imported food products before they reach U.S. borders.
"The tremendous volume of imports -- about $2 trillion worth of products each year from more than 230 countries -- makes it impossible to physically examine every product entering the country. Instead, the FDA uses a targeted, risk-based approach...an automated system alerts us to any concerns."
In addition to inequitable inspection standards, U.S. catfish farms must also contend with rising fuel and feed costs. The inequity got so bad this summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bought $10 million worth of U.S. farm-raised catfish, essentially a bail-out to ease the rising costs.
Leonard's Pit Barbecue, 5465 Fox Plaza Dr., pays a premium and charges a premium to serve Pride of the Pond catfish. Dan Brown said it's about taste and trust -- and his customers can tell the difference.
"There's a big difference in the flavor and consistency (between American and Vietnamese catfish)," Brown said. "I couldn't look them in the eye and serve them something else."
We as catfish lovers have to advocate for ourselves.
Here are the labeling laws, by state:
ARKANSAS: catfish imports must be labeled "imported catfish" on menu (statute provides no guidance on font size or placement); U.S. farm-raised catfish must be labeled "farm-raised" on the menu.
MISSISSIPPI: catfish imports must have country-of-origin labeled on menu in the same size as the product offered and directly under the product offered; U.S. farm-raised catfish must be labeled as such on menu unless the restaurant sells it exclusively. In that case, a sign approved by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce must be placed in a prominent location.
TENNESSEE: catfish imports must be labeled "imported" on the menu (statute provides no guidance on font or placement); no labeling requirement for U.S. farm-raised catfish.
Always check country-of-origin labeling on catfish at your favorite grocery stores, too!
The following are the four Mid-South restaurants I trust the most for U.S. farm-raised catfish:
1. Leonard's Pit Barbecue, 5465 Fox Plaza Dr, Fox Meadows/SE Memphis (Pride of the Pond, Tunica, MS)
2. Soul Fish Cafe, 862 S. Cooper St. in Cooper-Young Midtown or 3160 Village Shops Dr. in Germantown, TN (America's Catch, Itta Bena, MS and Pride of the Pond)
3. Flying Fish, 105 S. 2nd St., Downtown Memphis (Heartland, Itta Bena, MS or Pride of the Pond)
4. A&J's Catfish Station, 5950 Knight Arnold Rd., Fox Meadows/SE Memphis (America's Catch, Itta Bena, MS)