THE INFLUENCE GAME: What’s in a name? Catfish plan threatens trade war with Vietnam

after years of arguing that the Vietnamese fish isn’t catfish — and winning a federal law saying as much — the U.S. farmers are now trying to have it both ways. Under their latest lobbying strategy, they want the Vietnamese imports considered catfish so that they will be covered by a new inspections regime that they pushed through Congress last year.

The move — an example of how influential industries work their will in Congress — could block Vietnamese imports for years and risks a broader trade war.

If the Obama administration signs off on the plan, the fish that’s long been a staple of Southern cooking could unravel years of improving relations between the U.S. and its former enemy.

The inspections feud is the latest in a long-running battle between a $400 million domestic farm sector that raises catfish in ponds across the Mississippi Delta and a burgeoning industry in Vietnam, where fish are raised in ponds and cages along the Mekong River.

The U.S. industry — mostly located in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas — has had a string of successes on Capitol Hill and in Southern legislatures.

Along with winning frequent federal aid, it pushed a labeling law through Congress in 2002 that forced the Vietnamese fish to be sold in the United States under unfamiliar names such as pangasius, basa or tra. A year later, it won an antidumping case authorizing tariffs of up to 64 percent on the Vietnamese fish. The southern states where most catfish farming is done now require restaurants to disclose where their fish was raised.