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Processed Catfish - Product Forms, Packaging, Yields & Product Mix

The catfish industry in the United States has gone through tremendous growth during its 25-year history. Total water acreage for catfish production has increased from over 56,000 acres in 1980 to over 130,000 acres in 1988. Like production, the catfish processing industry has also increased dramatically to keep up with rapid changes in supply and demand. Round weight (live weight of fish delivered for processing) processed in 1980 in the U.S. was approximately 46.5 million pounds. By 1988, this number increased to over 295 million pounds, a 534 percent increase in 8 years. Producer sales (farm value) for food-size catfish totaled over $249 million for 1988.

Initially, catfish processing developed to help alleviate problems associated with overproduction of farm-raised channel catfish. In the 1960s, most of the water acreage was used to produce catfish for fee-fishing and for live hauling to replenish other fee-fishing ponds. As the live-haul market reached a saturation point in the late 1960s and early 1970s, established producers moved into processing. In 1987, more than 80 percent of production was marketed through commercial processors. Almost 190 million pounds of catfish were consumed in 1987 through various markets, resulting in a per capita consumption of over .75 pounds. This is a 23 percent increase from 1986 levels.

Product forms

A traditional product form of processed catfish is the whole dressed fish. This is a catfish that has been headed, gutted and skinned (HGS). However, a growing percentage of sales is generated when the dressed fish is further processed into a variety of cuts or forms, including:

All these forms are marketed fresh and frozen, and many are now sold breaded. Processors also sell rounds–eviscerated catfish with the head still on.

During the latter part of the 1980s, specialty products have made their way into the marketplace. Whole dressed catfish and fillets, coated or marinated with flavors and spices such as lemon-butter, cajun and mesquite, can be found in the seafood section of numerous grocery stores.

Another product favorite in certain sections of the United States is "bloody" whole dressed fish or fillets. This is whole dressed fish that does not go through the wash before it is packaged, thus giving it a bloody or "just killed" appearance.

Offal, the by-product of catfish processing, should also be considered when discussing catfish forms. Offal is sent to rendering plants for further processing into fish meal and fish oil (ingredients used in animal feed), or it is ground, cooled, and then sold to pet food companies as an ingredient in canned pet food.


Catfish products are sold by processors to institutional and retail markets. The majority of catfish products are packaged and delivered fresh (ice packed), individually quick frozen (IQF) or chill packed.

The fresh product is packaged in a variety of ways to meet specifications of the customers. For example, whole dressed fish, shank fillets, regular fillets, steaks, strips and nuggets may be packaged in one or more polybags on ice in a wax-coated corrugated box. Fish, especially whole dressed fish, may be placed directly on ice and then covered with ice. When customers request ice pack, the fresh product is placed in wax-coated corrugated boxes with holes at the bottom of the side panels to allow for drainage as the ice melts. Dry pack boxes do not have drainage holes. Depending on the product form, net weight in the boxes may run 10,15, 20 or 30 pounds. However, each box is often packaged with 30 pounds of product and 20 pounds of ice. If the product is going to be placed in a retail package at grocery stores, label inserts are also included in the corrugated boxes.

The chill pack process consists of lowering the temperature of the product to between 25 and 30 F to form a crust-freezing effect. Products such as whole dressed fish, fillets (including marinated fillets), nuggets and strips are often packaged and shipped chill packed and then sold through retail outlets as fresh fish. This process extends shelf life, protecting the fish until it is thawed. The product is packaged in styrofoam trays, with soaker pads on the bottom, and covered with a polyfilm. Trays are then placed in corrugated boxes without ice and stored or shipped in cold-storage form. Net weights of the boxes vary according to product form and customer requirements; however, basic net weights are 10,15, 20 and 30 pounds. The boxed trays are then placed on pallets and moved into a blast freezer for a short period of time to achieve the crust freeze. They are then held in the cooler for shipment.

Frozen product forms may be individually quick frozen (IQF) by equipment such as spiral or tunnel freezers or individually frozen through a blast freeze process and ice-glazed. The majority of large processors use the IQF process. Products sold frozen include whole dressed fish, fillets, nuggets, strips, steaks and formed products.

Breaded products, such as whole dressed fish, fillets, strips, nuggets and formed products, are also sold frozen. The individually frozen products are placed in polybags and packed in corrugated boxes with net weights usually of 10 and 15 pounds. In some cases, the frozen product is placed loose in the corrugated box, and later packaged in styrofoam trays for retail outlets. Breaded products may also be packaged in 2 l/2-pound polybags and 5-pound polybags and placed in 20-pound and 40-pound master cartons, respectively. This size package is popular with frozen food retail outlets. Sealed, printed polybags containing breaded products ranging from 2 to 4 pounds are purchased by wholesale outlets for consumers. Breaded products are also sold, as are other fish products, in printed cartons in the retail freezer case.

One of the new further processed catfish items is the enrobed product. This process consists of coating a product, especially fillets with a seasoning and oil base mixture and then individually freezing it. The enrobed fillets are then packed in clear plastic trays that contain individual compartments to keep the products from touching. Trays are usually packed according to fillet size, such as 4, 5 or 7 ounces, and are then placed in a polybag in a corrugated box. Normally, there are five trays with a total of 20 fillets to the box; however, this may vary according to the processor.

Yields and product mix

The yield from catfish processing is determined, to a large extent, by the product forms to which the processor is keying his marketing strategy. Further processing of catfish results in lower yields and more waste, so the processor’s cost per pound of salable product increases accordingly. This factor, along with the marketing strategy of the processor and current consumer demands (the major factor), helps to determine the product mix for individual processors.

A live fish dressing yield of 62 percent is assumed. As further processing occurs, a whole dressed fish is assumed to yield 70 percent fillets or 90 percent steaks. Fifty percent of the whole dressed fish is further processed into fillets, steaks and nuggets. Of this amount, 5 percent is converted to steaks and the remaining 95 percent to fillets. The amount of fillets can further be broken down, with 20 percent remaining as regular fillets and 80 percent being further processed into nuggets and shank fillets.

From an input of 10,000 pounds of live fish, a total of 5,301 pounds, or 53 percent of the live weight, is converted into salable product. The catfish components of further processed items, such as breaded, marinated and enrobed product forms, are included in the percentages

Data includes fresh and frozen products. For many years, sales of fresh products exceeded frozen. In 1985 a turning point in the industry occurred when the majority of sales came from frozen products. In 1987, frozen products represented 52 percent of sales by commercial processors. In recent years sales of whole catfish have been declining, from 46 percent of total sales in 1986 to 43 percent in 1987. On the other hand, sales have increased for value-added products such as breaded pieces and nuggets.


Per capita consumption of catfish products has increased significantly over the last decade. A share of this increase has resulted from intensive marketing efforts within the industry. But rapid changes in consumption patterns and an apparent desire for new and exciting food products have been equally important. This is evidenced by the introduction of over 8,000 new food products each year. The catfish industry has recognized these trends and has introduced value-added products to keep abreast of consumer demands.

In 1987 consumers ate approximately 190 million pounds of catfish, equivalent to .75 pounds per capita (a 23 percent increase from 1986). It is apparent that new products and new product forms of catfish are being accepted in the marketplace.While this trend is indicative of a growing market for catfish products, additional research and development are needed to insure that quality products are introduced year after year. Products that meet the expectations of health-conscious, nutritionally informed consumers.

Product Quality and Quality Control

Unlike the red meat and poultry processing industries, catfish processing does not fall under the regulations of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Before a catfish processor begins operation, however, he must contact local county health officials to comply with county health regulations and to obtain a health permit. Catfish processing operations also must adhere to standards set forth by the Good Manufacturing Practice Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 110, and are subject to announced and unannounced inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As in other industries, the catfish industry considers quality a number one priority. Without a quality product, sales of catfish products would quickly decrease. In order to maintain a quality product and promote consumer confidence, the major commercial catfish processors have contracted voluntarily with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to have their plants inspected. NMFS is an agency service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the United States Department of Commerce (USDC). Federal inspectors with the NMFS perform unbiased, official inspections of plants, procedures and products for firms that pay for these services. The inspectors issue certificates indicating quality and condition of the catfish products.

The NMFS voluntary inspection program provides for the inspection of products and facilities and the grading of products.

Inspection is the examination of seafood (catfish) products by a U. S. Department of Commerce inspector or a cross-licensed State or U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector. They determine whether the product is safe, clean, wholesome and properly labeled. The equipment, facility and food-handling personnel must also meet established sanitation and hygienic standards. Products that pass inspection can display the federal inspection statement, "Packed Under Federal Inspection" or PUFI mark on the label and/or carton. Grading is the added step after inspection in which the quality level is determined. Only products that have an established grade standard can be graded. Industry uses the grade standards to buy and sell products. Consumers, however, rely on grading as a guide to purchasing products of high quality. Graded products can bear a U.S. grade mark which shows their quality level. The "U.S. Grade A" mark indicates that the product is of high quality, that it is uniform in size, practically free of blemishes and defects, in excellent condition, and has good flavor and odor.

In addition to the contract inspection mentioned above, USDC performs other services. On request or on a regular contract basis, USDC conducts lot inspections of products to determine if they meet specifications of the party (buyers, brokers, distributors, etc.) that requested the inspection. USDC also has consultation services and provides assistance in specification development, label review, and analytical tests on products.

Detailed information regarding inspection requirements can be found in the Federal Standard Sanitation Standards for Fish Plants, FED-STD- 369, August 2, 1977. Additional information regarding inspection and standards for products is in the Code of Federal Regulations Title 50, parts 260 and 267. Products may have the Inspection Mark and the Grade Shield or both of these symbols, depending upon the degree of inspection effort performed and the grade of the product.

In early 1988 The Catfish Institute (TCI), in cooperation with the USDC and the NMFS, began a voluntary inspection program to insure and promote quality catfish products. Processors who meet the criteria set by this program are able to use TCI’S registered trademarks, the Mississippi Prime name and logo, on their catfish products. To be able to use these trademarks, a processor must be licensed by TCI and can process only grain-fed channel catfish delivered live to the plant. The plant must be USDC certified as a "Sanitarily Inspected Fish Establishment". Weekly inspections to maintain this certification are required. In addition, weekly unannounced lot inspections by USDC are mandatory. Evaluation of the processor includes maintaining high standards reflected by average monthly inspection scores and product testing to monitor the flavor, appearance and texture as well as to test levels of quality control at the processing plant.

In addition to Federal inspection, major commercial catfish processors have in-house quality assurance programs and are often inspected by quality assurance staffs from various customers.

Catfish processing quality control begins at the pond before the fish are harvested for processing. Off-flavor catfish is a major source of concern to catfish producers and processors. This condition is usually generated by minute amounts of chemicals produced from algae imbalance. Ideally, flavor checks on fish to be processed are done by qualified personnel 1 week before harvest, 1 day before harvest, and on the day of harvest.

Basic procedures for quality control

The following is an overview of basic quality control procedures for catfish processing plants. Commercial processors with high quality catfish products have quality assurance programs that cover these areas in more detail.

With the assistance of U.S. Department of Commerce inspection programs and in-depth quality assurance programs, today’s commercial catfish processors are providing the consumer with quality catfish products.

Further Processing and Trends in the Industry

In many respects, the rapidly growing catfish processing industry has paralleled the more established poultry processing industry. For many years, dressed poultry was only a commodity product. When fast foods became convenient and popular, poultry made its first thrust into the further processing area.

Although no national catfish chain rivals poultry product outlets, during the past few years many catfish "houses" or restaurants have served breaded catfish to the consumer.

Breaded, uncooked catfish fillets and whole fish emerged as the initial further processed product. Most of these products contain 20 to 30 percent cornmeal breading and usually are sold as a raw product to the institutional market. Sizes usually range from 3 to 7 ounces for fillets.

One potential product is a formed portion controlled product that is exact in shape, size and weight. This product is breaded and is excellent for school lunch programs. Products can be offered in 1 to 5 ounce portions. Breaded fillet strips also have been a popular item for fast food outlets or restaurants.

A recent entry to the further processed area is an enrobed catfish product. The enrobing medium usually consists of vegetable oil or oil/water coatings that are applied to fillets which are then frozen. Many flavors and types have been presented, including lemon-butter, cajun and blackened. These types of coatings provide an up-scale catfish product suitable for baking or broiling at "white tablecloth" restaurants. Combinations of light coatings and bread crumbs are also available.

The use of phosphates as a processing aid has provided another area for new further processed products. The injector has provided a means of carrying flavors and spices to the core of catfish fillets. Products, such as lemon-butter, hot and spicy, and smoked fillets, can be prepared with this technology. Another method of carrying spices and flavors into the catfish is vacuum marination. Marination provides a vehicle to carry spices and flavors of larger particle size and heavier coatings to the surface and interior of fillets.

Many of the further processed catfish products have been packaged with suitable companion products such as hushpuppies. Presently, no fully cooked, frozen catfish products are being prepared. Products of this nature have potential in the future.

Minced catfish, deboned from the skeletal frames after filleting, offers several opportunities for further processing. The minced meat is formed into patties and breaded. These patties have been successful for school lunch programs. The catfish mince can be frozen in 16-pound blocks for making breaded fish sticks, gumbo, or any product requiring fish in the recipe. Surimi has been successfully made from minced catfish.

A stuffed catfish fillet is almost certain to make an entrance into the marketplace. Stuffings could include crab and shrimp flavored surimi, shrimp stuffing, cornbread stuffing and many others.

Another opportunity for further processed products is the use of minced catfish in conjunction with other seafood products such as shrimp. Minced catfish often can be used in lieu of surimi. An example would be a formed, breaded shrimp product containing shrimp pieces and deboned catfish.

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This page was last updated on November 15, 2002