What’s causing the pangasius sales crash?

Published on
August 30, 2012

The latest issue of the Globefish Highlights, published by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in mid-August, starkly illustrates the dramatic decline in sales of pangasius to European countries. Imports to the EU are down by a massive 27 percent in volume and 22 percent in value compared with the year before.

The organization gives Eurostat figures for imports of pangasius fillets by Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Belgium and Italy for the period January to March this year alongside the figures for the same period in 2011 and 2010.

They make depressing reading for fisheries authorities in Vietnam, the world’s largest pangasius producer. With the exception of Belgium where imports remained steady at 2,200 metric tons (MT), and Italy where imports actually increased from 2,700 MT to 3,100 MT, imports by all the other countries declined when comparing the figures for 2012 with those for 2011.

Some falls were dramatic, for example imports by Spain, the biggest importer listed, nearly halved from 11,400 MT to 6,200 MT and imports by Poland again virtually halved from 6,000 MT to 3,100 MT.

With the exception of Germany where imports have been declining for the past two years, there were increases in imports for all other countries between 2010 and 2011.

So what has caused the crash? In Germany the blame for declining sales could be laid squarely at the door of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) which first put pangasius on its red list of species to avoid and then carried out a hatchet job on the species with the television program lambasting the methods for farming and processing it.

It might be thought that this adverse publicity would have been forgotten by now, but bad news has a habit of sticking with fish. It has taken many years for consumers to stop believing that farmed salmon is not being pumped full of antibiotics. Indeed, farmed salmon today is still not highly regarded in some quarters.

Have European consumers been put off by all the bad publicity that still surrounds pangasius? Certainly opinions in the seafood industry are against the species. That “rubbish fish” was how one senior figure in Norway described it at this year’s ESE, while a fisheries consultant said that the farming methods used in Vietnam were disgraceful — actually a swear word was used to describe them.

Does pangasius deserve this reputation? The species has been subjected to far more bacteriological, chemical and physical testing that any other. According to one insider, 29 parameters are checked on fillets from every consignment exported. No other fish is checked as much.

Problems have been found with the presence of banned substances, but not one person has been reported as being harmed in any way by eating pangasius. And while Europe is still mired in recession, sales of what must be the cheapest whitefish available should be booming.

The fact that they are actually declining in most of Europe must mean that consumers have been put off by the continuing bad publicity. But what do they know about the fish from organizations such as the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) in Vietnam? The silence has been deafening.

Yes, each individual exporter has its own sales brochure showing gleaming white fillets with glowing descriptions inside, but these are for potential trade customers. There is nothing for consumers or for caterers. Compare that with the marketing efforts of the former Norwegian Seafood Export Council or the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

In its Globefish Highlights, FAO says that Vietnamese pangasius is being hit by a supply shortage, disease problems, high production costs and the slowing down of traditional markets. Considering these problems the Vietnamese government, it adds, is unlikely to achieve its target export value of USD 2 billion for pangasius in 2012.

Will this at last stimulate some marketing effort, or will the Vietnamese authorities still bury their heads in the sand as they have done in the past? Watch this space.

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