Blame it on the French. More than any other people, they have promoted the notion that the taste of a food is inextricably bound to the place where it is grown. As early as the 1920s, France's winemakers were restricting use of the term Bordeaux to wines produced in that area. In 1974 they engineered an international treaty that declared that only bubbly from the Champagne region could be labeled champagne, forcing other producers of sparkling wines (including vintners in Champagne, Switzerland) to scramble for synonyms like methode champagnoise.
Now, though, the French idea is catching on worldwide, as the latest tool of those who would protect their regional agriculture and aquaculture from competition. Audacious producers are claiming virtual trademarks on everything from catfish, herring and scallops to certain varieties of rice and onions.
In November, President George W. Bush signed a one-year provision declaring that only bottom feeders raised in the U.S. could be sold as catfish. Legislation to make the ban permanent passed the Senate in December and is pending in the House. The measure was specifically aimed at competition from Vietnamese farmers who raise a variety of catfish in flooded rice paddies and sell them for attractive prices: about $1.80 a lb. wholesale, vs. $2.80 for U.S.-farmed catfish. Called basa, the Vietnamese fish account for about 20% of catfish fillets sold in the U.S., up from 7% in 1997. "These fish are being pawned off as catfish to unsuspecting American consumers," argued Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson, who co-sponsored the legislation against basa, and whose state happens to be a major site of catfish farming. "With names such as Delta Fresh, no one would suspect it is from the Mekong Delta."
Never mind that ichthyologists have found that U.S. catfish and Vietnamese basa are virtually indistinguishable genetically. Never mind that importers of basa defy anyone in a blind taste test to distinguish their product from U.S. catfish. This battle isn't about science or succulence so much as it is about politics and commerce.
Before the catfish flap, Americans from several Southern states fought one another over the popular "no tears" onions known as Vidalia Sweets. Originally grown near the town of Vidalia, Ga., these onions soon were cultivated elsewhere from Vidalia onion seeds. A 1986 Georgia law says onion growers in only 20 of the state's 159 counties can label their produce Vidalia. Violators are fined by the state's commissioner of agriculture.
Like rice with your onions? Get ready for another food fight. India wants to prevent the U.S. from selling its products as basmati rice, the fluffy, long-grained variety traditionally associated with South Asian cuisine. India has vehemently protested a 1997 U.S. patent granted to a Texas-based company called RiceTec for a genetically engineered variety of basmati developed in the U.S. India's rice crusade won support from demonstrators at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last year. And India even achieved rare solidarity with its regional foe, Pakistan, which also exports basmati rice.