European retailers seek action on pangasius standards

Published on
June 5, 2014

Two weeks ago a major European supermarket chain complained to an exporter based in Vietnam about the “high salt content” of the pangasius fillets his company was supplying. The salty taste was almost certainly caused by the excessive use of sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), or a similar compound, prior to freezing.

Officially used to reduce the volume of drip on thawing, STPP can also be used to bind in water and therefore is a common cause of increasing the weight of frozen seafood. As the U.K. fisheries ministry has pointed out “this weight gain amounts to selling added water.”

While its use is not illegal in the EU, STPP is subject to strict guidelines on the amount to be used in processing and, more importantly, its presence should be declared at the point of sale to the consumer.

However, non-phosphate additives are increasingly being used by processors to bind in water. Their presence is much harder to detect than STPP and there is the added bonus to unscrupulous processors that they can be declared as harmless sounding citric acid on the pack as this indeed is part of their composition.

Dipping or tumbling in various solutions of phosphates or non-phosphates isn’t the only method being used to add water to pangasius. The fillets, once frozen, will have a layer of ice or glaze applied. As with STPP or non-phosphate solutions, there is no sound technological reason to add more excessive glaze — it is just another form of cheating.

Since the cost of water is less than the seafood being processed, these treatments will reduce the overall cost of the product. And in the case of pangasius this is precisely what unscrupulous processors are seeking to achieve as the price of the fish is rocketing due to an extreme shortage.

This shortage has been caused by the crippling costs of production such as the price of feed, juveniles and, above all, the interest rates being charged by banks for loans.

According to one industry insider, 70 percent of farmers have stopped producing pangasius in the past two years and this has “put enormous pressure on the supply of raw material.

“Top quality white or light pink pangasius fillets with a 10 percent glaze are now costing up to USD 4.00 CIF, the highest price ever recorded and processors pack every fishtail they can get hold of even if the quality is often doubtful.”

Needless to say, the high price of pangasius, which has been allowed to become a “bargain basement” item, is causing panic among Vietnam exporters. But the excessive use of additives such as STPP and non-phosphates, and glaze, is likewise causing panic among European importers who have been building up substantial markets for this alternative whitefish species.

A delegation of importers voiced their concerns to Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors (VASEP) officials at last month’s Seafood Expo Global in Brussels. The officials promised to take the matter up with the Vietnam fisheries ministry and ask it to limit the amount of glaze to be added to pangasius to 10 percent and to stop the excessive treatment with STPP and other compounds.

However, concerns have been raised with VASEP about Vietnam’s pangasius industry many times in the past without action being taken.

The main reason for adding water to pangasius fillets and thus bringing down the price is due to supermarket chains awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. Pressure is then passed down the line to processors and these practices occur.

Perhaps the supermarket chains should switch their current obsession on sustainability to ensuring that the processing of the fish they sell is up to scratch. This would be of far more benefit to consumers who do not want to purchase water instead of fish and do not want their fish to taste salty.

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