Glitz, glamour and pangasius

Pham Thi Dieu Hien, president and CEO of Vietnamese pangasius producer Bianfishco, who recently set up a U.S. subsidiary in Beverly Hills, Calif., employed more than a touch of Hollywood glamour when she opened the Seafood Institute of Vietnam earlier this month.

Around 2,000 guests from the world of science and politics — four ministers came to the opening — not to mention the entire seafood industry from fish farmers to processors to buyers, were entertained by singers and dancers from across Vietnam. A song had even been written about Madame Hien herself.

The institute is housed in a retro-style 19th century colonial villa, opposite the company’s premises in Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta, and has a brand new Rolls Royce for its use; the gleaming black car was ostensibly parked outside the building for the opening ceremony.

However, away from the glitz and glamour, the institute has the objective of improving the quality of Vietnamese seafood products. Headed up by one of Vietnam’s top aquaculture scientists and former vice minister of fisheries, Nguyen Viet Thang, the institute will concentrate on four main areas of work: analysis and testing services, feeding technology, processing technology, and information and training.

Its first project will be to work with IBM to devise a fully electronic traceability system for seafood products. The system will primarily be applied to Bianfishco lines but will also be available for other Vietnamese seafood producers to use.

And this could be the start of a dilemma for Bianfishco. Madame Hien, who owns the company, has invested about USD 1 million to create the institute. Will she want her competitors to profit from the institute’s research?

And the investment isn’t a one-off. Around 50 staff members will be employed at the institute, again all paid for by Madame Hien. It is a sizeable cost to bear, even for a very successful seafood company, which Bianfishco certainly is.

In just five years, it has risen to become one of the top three pangasius producers in Vietnam. The company has an annual turnover of about USD 100 million and now plans to enlarge its portfolio into value-added products. It has its own farms, which just achieved GlobalGAP certification, and it sells frozen pangasius fillets to buyers worldwide. The United States, where it enjoys a zero antidumping tariff, is currently its biggest market, although that could all change depending on the progress of the 2008 Farm Bill. (The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect and grade imported catfish and pangasius, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently responsible for.)

Madame Hien is well known for promoting her quality oriented policy, with the company’s golden “Q” featured heavily in its literature. And she successfully entered the U.S. market using the Obama-like slogan: “Yes, we can do Quality.”

So is the founding of the seafood institute a gigantic propaganda exercise, albeit a very expensive one, or is it a genuine research station for the good of the Vietnamese seafood industry as a whole? Only time will tell, although the initial signs are positive.

Thang has been hired to coordinate the efforts of national and international scientists carrying out seafood research and development in Vietnam. The institute will have an advisory board comprising Vietnamese and international scientists and representatives from seafood organizations and other agencies. The board will consult with government agencies and other institutes, as well as with international sources.

The Vietnamese seafood industry has been criticized for its approach to quality control — sometimes justly, often not. The founding of the Seafood Institute of Vietnam could help enormously improve the image of the Vietnamese seafood industry abroad. Let’s hope that it lives up to its early expectations.

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