Initially, US catfish lobbyists delivered a heavy blow to Vietnamese catfish producers when they convinced US lawmakers to implement a law that banned imported catfish from being called “catfish.” Both the US and Vietnamese fish are in the same order of Siluriformes but in different families.
However, their joy didn’t last long because the Vietnamese retaliated by rebranding their catfish as basa. “Basa” is simply the Vietnamese word for the fish in question. First they didn’t have a coherent strategy and so other names also proliferated, including tra, bocourti, panga and swai. Panga, which is mostly used in Europe, derives from the Latin family name Pangasiidae. Basa and tra are different subfamilies – basa is technically known as Pangasius bocourti (hence the trade name bocourti) and tra is technically known as Pangasius hypophthalmus. The Vietnamese word for Pangasius hypophthalmus is tra and the Thai word for it is swai (hence the trade names tra and swai).
It was all very confusing (it took me a good two hours of internet research to figure this all out), particularly as basa is used internationally for both Pangasius bocourti and Pangasius hypophthalmus, and the same is true for panga in Europe. However, since 2010 Vietnam has instituted legislation to label all basa and tra for export consistently as basa.
The Vietnamese strategy of market differentiation worked. In the past decade, basa has come to be seen as an imported premium product and has been doing well in a range of export markets, including the USA. Consequently, US catfish lobbyists changed their strategy: they went to lobby for basa to be treated as a “like product” – i.e. completely reversing their earlier strategy which had been to argue that Vietnamese catfish was different from American catfish. They were successful again and Vietnamese basa has been subjected to heavy import tariffs.
As a discussion paper by the Center for International Management and Development Antwerp explains, the catfish war has transformed Vietnamese aquaculture: export markets have diversified beyond the USA, basa and tra are now being farmed in large agribusinesses, who have the means to innovate and to impose quality controls and to produce to international standards (another strategy in the catfish war has been to allege the inferior quality of Asian catfish and aquaculture).
The catfish war is not the only trade war fought on the terrain on language. Trade names have significant implications for competitiveness and consumer protection, particularly in the seafood business where new species continue to be bred and where the final product on the supermarket shelf has often undergone substantial technological intervention and transformation from animal to food.
The catfish war continues. US catfish producers have recently released a new catfish product, specially filleted premium catfish, under the car-name-like trade name Delacata. However, by now both US and Vietnamese catfish producers are more worried about competition from China than from each other.
In the meantime, if you ask Australian fish-and-chip vendors what kind of fish they use and where it comes from, they tell you: “Dunno! It comes in a box” Do you know what your food is and where it comes from?