2 major casino companies will buy Miss. catfish

Published 2:00 pm Friday, October 31, 2008

MGM Mirage Inc. and Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., the world’s largest casino companies, have signed a multimillion-dollar deal to begin serving domestic farmed-raised catfish at their Mississippi casinos.

The agreement comes nearly a month after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would buy up to $5 million worth of domestic catfish for school lunches and other programs amid a war between the nation’s catfish producers and importers bringing fish in from Asia.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., says Harrah’s, the largest gambling company by revenue, and MGM Mirage signed the deal Wednesday at the Catfish Farmers of America headquarters in Indianola.

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MGM Mirage owns and operates two Mississippi casinos — the Beau Rivage in Biloxi and the Gold Strike in Tunica. Harrah’s Entertainment has four, including three in Tunica, just south of Memphis, Tenn.

The casinos will purchase catfish from Mississippi growers and processors.

“It is a logically sound move and only right that businesses in Mississippi do business with each other when possible. And I think everyone benefits,” said Thompson, who announced the agreement in a release.

Karis Gutter, a spokesman for the congressman, said the deal will pump millions into the industry, but an exact estimate isn’t available.

“I can give you a specific example,” Gutter said. “At the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, they spent more than $1 million on various groups of fish between 2007 and 2008.”

Gutter said Harrah’s and MGM Mirage have been serving fish in their Mississippi casinos, but not fish grown by American farmers.

“It wasn’t quite farm-raised. It was a foreign-born off brand,” Gutter said.

The two deals are positive signs for growers who have seen the costs for catfish feed escalate while fighting the lingering battle with exporters from Vietnam and China.

About 95 percent of the nation’s catfish is produced on farms in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama.

U.S. catfish growers had sales of $445 million in 2007, down 8 percent from the previous year, according to USDA statistics. The farming acreage also dropped by 6 percent.

The deals and the decline in foreign freshwater fish imports may help turn things around. Imports from China, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam were down 21 percent in Aug. 2008 from the same period a year ago, according to Department of Agriculture statistics.

The average price paid to catfish farmers was around 82 cents per pound for Sept. 2008, about 13 cents above Sept. 2007’s average.

However, catfish feed cost has also increased significantly since 2007.

Dickie Steven, president of Consolidated Catfish Companies, LLC, the world’s largest freshwater processor, says the two deals could become “a springboard to bring more casinos on board with us and to get more exposure for our farm-raised product and the plight of the Mississippi catfish farmer.”

There were more than 110,000 acres of Mississippi catfish ponds in 2002, but that has fallen to 87,300 acres.

“We are losing farmers right and left,” Steven said. “We are afraid that we are going to see the farm base shrink to the level that we might not be able to maintain the infrastructure. Hopefully, we can revitalize the industry, but we are kind of at death’s door.”