Editor’s picks: The rise of pangasius

As the World Aquaculture Society convened for Aquaculture America 2011 in New Orleans last week, joint research from professors José Fernández Polanco of Spain’s University of Cantabria and Gunnar Knapp from the University of Alaska in Anchorage revealed the growing influence of frozen pangasius fillets on the European market.

Polanco’s previous research also found that, in Spain, although frozen or previously frozen fillets are now widely available and increasingly accepted by consumers, reservations remain about previously frozen, or defrosted, pangasius from Vietnam sold as chilled, mislabeling regarding substitute species and the quality standards.

In the 10-year period to 2009, Europe’s imports of frozen Vietnamese fillets rose to nearly 227 billion metric tons, some 19 percent of the region’s total frozen fish fillet imports. Focusing on Vietnamese imports in the evolution of prices, this rapid penetration may be shifting the equilibrium and changing existing competitive relations across species and countries, resulting in reverse reactions from local fishermens’ groups and associations.

Dove: Why research frozen pangasius fillets specifically? 

Polanco: We began researching different retail models in an attempt to develop theoretical systems into consumer knowledge about whitefish species and the evolution of Vietnamese fish fillets into the EU. This was presented to Aquaculture Asia Pacific in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2009. These results illustrated several issues on purchases and consumers’ assessments of pangasius catfish. We then used local, Eurostat and Food and Agriculture Organization databases to identify relevant species produced by 10 countries in different trade areas and tested Vietnamese imports against these different groups. We questioned whether consumers and traders consider fillets of different whitefish species as if they were the same product, and under these conditions we looked at the substitution of wild fish by farmed in the whitefish market.

What is the significance of pangasius mislabeling? 

With high levels of consumption, it could be expected that consumers had sufficient knowledge about the product, its origin and harvesting methods. However, incomplete or incorrect labeling and sales of defrosted pangasius fillets have caused confusion. Retailers and consumers have limited access to correct information. This malpractice sees pangasius fillets passed off as different species in a large number of countries across Europe and America. Apart from deliberate mislabeling, defrosted fillets were illegally passed off as fresh fillets. From among 475 seafood purchasers surveyed in Santander, north Spain, 299 were unsure of the panga country of origin; 349 unsure of its harvest method.

How is Vietnamese pangasius influencing pricing? 

It’s all about higher profits. We tested price logs for the five most important non-European fish fillet exporters to the EU (Vietnam, China, United States, Russia and Argentina). Vietnamese prices were shown to be a significant influence for some or all of the countries in all groups. On the other hand, we cannot reject statistical models which show that mislabeling increases the price paid by consumers, and consumers’ quality assessments on the species and its origin decrease when the product is mislabeled. However, quality scores improve when products are properly labeled and consumers recognize it as Southeast Asian aquaculture.

Tell us more about Spain’s pangasius consumption.  

Spanish imports of Vietnamese fish fillets increased over 95.9 percent from just 397 metric tons in 2002 to 49,286 tons in 2008. As with any aquaculture species, pangasius has the advantage of continuous supply, is adaptable to demand, there is great stability in the wholesale price, and its popularity with retailers and consumers is its convenient fillet form. MercaMadrid (Spain’s largest wholesale market) shows that supply has fluctuated according to usual seasonal demand during the past two years, while wholesale price remains unchanged at EUR 3.31 (USD 4.61) per kilogram. Retail prices generally range between EUR 6 and 8 (USD 8.36 and 11.14) per kilogram, although in the last two years they have decreased to between EUR 4 and 6 (USD 5.53 and 8.36) per kilogram due to the crisis.

Viet Nam means “Water Land”. Its seafood industry currently ranks third in the world (behind China and India) for aquaculture production and sixth for aquaculture exports. In 2008, its fish exports generated EUR 3.2 billion [in] revenue (USD 4.5 billion), a 20 percent increase on the previous year.

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