Is pangasius suffering from an identity crisis?
While the U.K. retail market tends to be about price, first and foremost, pangasius is probably too cheap for its own good. That’s the opinion of one of Europe’s biggest importers of the species.
Speaking at the 5th annual Billingsgate School Sustainable Fish & Shellfish Awards, held recently at London’s Billingsgate Fish Market, Klaas Jan Mazereeuw, quality assurance manager at Dutch company Seafood Connection B.V., said the fish has so far failed to win over U.K. consumers and that its low price positioning in the market, compared with other proteins, was probably one of the main reasons for this poor performance.
Pangasius is currently the 20th most popular seafood product in U.K. retail industry. On an annual basis, just 1.7 million metric tons (MT) with a value of around GBP 14 million (USD 22.9 million, EUR 16.8 million) is sold in the market. Compare that performance to the United States where it is the market’s sixth most popular product and where it is consumed at a rate of 0.7 pounds per capita, or Seafood Connection’s home market of the Netherlands, where pangasius is the third most popular product after fish fingers and canned tuna.
There’s little doubt that pangasius’ popularity in the Netherlands has been boosted by the arrival of Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certified products. The first of these debuted in September last year and flew off the shelves. Mazereeuw, along with Esther Luiten, commercial marketing manager at the ASC, see no reason why sales in the U.K. market can’t follow a similar pattern, “given time.”
The first ASC-certified pangasius arrived in U.K. retail just six months ago when it was introduced by Sainsbury’s as “river cobbler.” However, in the same market, the fish is also marketed as “basa” and “panga” and while such names are clearly intended to add value to the products by sounding like more familiar species to U.K. shoppers, there were some attendees at the Billingsgate event who felt there is a “smoke and mirrors” element to the strategy. Even buyers and suppliers of pangasius agreed it could create further consumer uncertainty about a product that has already had its fair share of negative headlines, most notably for being passed off as cod in fish and chip shops or in retail as scampi, which is traditionally manufactured from langoustine tails.
One European market where pangasius performed well for a while but is now languishing is Germany, confirmed Mazereeuw. German pangasius sales are still in the doldrums following the 2011 broadcast of a television documentary called “The Pangasius Lie,” in which a WWF expert portrayed the farming practices of Vietnamese producers in a poor light.
While Vietnamese authorities said the program was inaccurate, the damage had been done and sales slumped. Fortunately, the film didn’t affect the Dutch market, said Mazereeuw, who revealed that Seafood Connection, which is part-owned by Maruha Nichiro Seafoods Inc., annually imports 25,000 MT of frozen fish fillets into the Netherlands, half of which is pangasius. He also said the perception of pangasius in the German market could conceivably improve now that more ASC-certified products are available.
In fighting fire with fire, Mazereeuw and Luiten showed a more recent film. Also made by WWF, “Responsibly farmed pangasius; a taste of things to come,” confirmed that Vietnam, which produces 90 percent of the world’s commercially-traded pangasius products, has committed to getting 100 percent of its pangasius production certified as sustainable by 2015, with 50 percent certified under the ASC.
It also showed the considerable environmental, social and technical improvements that Hung Vuong Corporation, one of Vietnam’s largest pangasius producers, had made in achieving ASC certification.
Pangasius is definitely not a product to be ashamed of, said Luiten. Adding that these efforts show that most of the industry in Vietnam is working hard to turn things around and to improve the product’s reputation in the global marketplace.
“Whether or not the price will increase as a result is not for us to say,” she said.