Ag Department Fines Hurley Store For Mislabeling Fish

The state Department of Agriculture and Commerce has fined a Jackson County grocery store for selling Vietnamese basa fish mislabeled as catfish.

Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell said Wednesday that the $1,800 fine assessed to Greer's Food Tiger in Hurley is part of an aggressive effort to identify and punish retailers engaged in illegal labeling practices.

Congress in November barred importers, restaurants and grocery stores from labeling fish from Vietnam as catfish. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove also signed a bill this year requiring Mississippi retailers to clearly show the correct origin of domestic and imported fish on packages.

Dealing with the Vietnamese fish is a hot ticket item in Mississippi. The domestic catfish industry has revenue of more than $500 million, with the greatest concentrations of farms found in this state, Arkansas and Louisiana. There are more than 150,000 acres of catfish ponds in the United States with 91,000 of those acres in Mississippi.

"United States' markets have been saturated with foreign fish marketed as catfish,'' Spell said. "This is misleading to the Mississippi consumer who associates the word 'catfish' with those fish raised in the Delta and other Southern states.''

Package labels on the Vietnamese basa sold at Greer's Food Tiger identified the product as "Imported Catfish.''

Julie McLemore, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said Mississippi has 10 inspectors traveling the state to make routine checks at retailers. The inspectors cover all the grocery stores in the state at least twice a year.

"All of our inspectors will be doing that every day,'' McLemore said. "In that sense it may be aggressive, but it is part of our routine daily procedure to look at the marketing of catfish.''

McLemore said the Hurley grocery store has paid the fine.

"We intend to vigorously enforce this law so that the unsuspecting consumer does not fall victim to misleading marketing tactics,'' Spell said.

Indianola-based Catfish Farmers of America has filed an antidumping petition, seeking relief from the flood of cheaper fish from Vietnam that is finding its way to supermarkets and restaurants. The petition was filed last month with the U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Hugh Warren, executive vice president of CFA, said Vietnamese basa, which resemble the American catfish, have captured as much as 20 percent of the frozen catfish filet market. Warren said the importation of basa has driven market prices for the domestic product to new lows.