VASEP: Pangasius is 100 percent safe
This month, Vietnam’s pangasius industry has found itself on the defensive, countering attacks from critics such as Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson and the U.S.-based Catfish Farmers of America (CFA), who accuse farmers of raising fish in unsanitary conditions and processors of exploiting workers. Following Stevenson’s remarks to the European Parliament, the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) invited the politician to visit the country’s fish farms and processing plants, confident that witnessing the industry first-hand will change his perspective.
And, according to VASEP, Stevenson has accepted the invitation and will visit Vietnam next year.
In an exclusive interview with SeafoodSource, VASEP seeks to clear up the misperceptions surrounding Vietnam’s burgeoning pangasius industry.
Hedlund: Both Stevenson and the CFA have accused Vietnam’s pangasius industry of raising fish in unsanitary conditions. Stevenson went as far as to call the Mekong River “filthy.” Are their claims unfounded and unfair?
VASEP: The claims made in both instances are not only unfair and unfounded, but they are also clearly based on outdated information. Today, 100 percent of our companies farm in ponds away from the Mekong River, not in the Mekong River itself. We are producing food; for that reason, our companies are committed to good farming and manufacturing practices. This means that it is our practice as an industry to monitor water quality on an ongoing, regular basis, both the incoming water and the effluent. In addition, because the river is a national treasure, the Mekong River Commission has taken strong measures to protect the resource.
Can Tho University and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership have conducted independent research and produced a substantial report [called] “Water Quality Monitoring in Striped Pangasius Farms in the Mekong River Delta.” In this research, they measured different physical and chemical parameters of river water, pond water and outlet water. They have concluded that the water used in catfish production systems — at inlets, culture ponds, and outlets — measures as being within acceptable ranges of national and international standards for aquaculture.
As an industry, Vietnam is working hard to improve not only its image abroad but also its practices. The leading companies that export to both the EU and U.S. markets meet or exceed many of the rigorous global standards — GlobalGAP for the farms and SQF 1000, USDC and BRC for processing plants. In addition, several leading exporters are now undergoing or preparing to undergo Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) audits for eventual certification.
What is VASEP and Vietnam’s pangasius industry doing to promote that pangasius is farmed in sanitary conditions and meets international aquaculture standards?
VASEP: The obvious answer is not enough. Culturally, the Vietnamese people tend to be very modest and do not like to advertise or brag about our products or practices. But the attacks on our industry and our companies have been harmful to the people for whom aquaculture has become a way out of poverty as well as on our reputation as a country. VASEP plans to take new measures to protect our reputation as a global producer of seafood — finfish and shrimp.
Stevenson and the CFA claim that they’re trying to protect consumers in the name of food safety. But critics say this is really a matter of international trade politics and protectionism, not food safety. Do you agree?
Everyone knows the catfish campaign is not about food safety; this is not a food-safety issue at all. While the U.S. catfish farmers want to protect their interests, the reality is that we are not the problem. They are limited by the cost of raw materials (as are all producers of farmed seafood) and nothing we are doing will change what they must charge for their products. A better strategy for them would be to create high-value products, not try to bash the competition.
As the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership just announced, there is no food-safety issue with pangasius from Vietnam. The issue is really a “red herring.” We are not aware of anyone reporting getting sick from eating the fish we produce. At the same time, we are aware that in the United States people died and got very sick from eating peanuts that came from the South, as well as eggs and other agricultural products. We believe one can then conclude that the Catfish Farmers are really more concerned about keeping us out of “their” market and not so concerned about food safety.
One more point to make about this: People have all kinds of ideas in their heads about our country and our people. What they need to know is that Vietnam can and will be a major player in the growing of food, and we embrace all of the technical assistance and new approaches to make us more efficient and more quality-focused. That is how we will build our brand and our strength in world markets.
How do you respond to accusations that Vietnam’s pangasius industry is exploiting workers?
Quite frankly, we believe these critics have no idea how many jobs our industry has created, nor do they understand the benefit that aquaculture is bringing to the people of Vietnam. They have jobs and an income, where they never had this before. It is clear that to become BAP-certified, for example, our companies will also have to comply with social justice audits, which should answer our critics once and for all.
Beyond the United States and United Kingdom, what markets show the strongest growth potential for Vietnamese pangasius?
That remains to be seen. In the past week, because of careless remarks made by individuals and groups who have never even visited Vietnam, the World Wildlife Fund has red-listed pangasius. This will have terrible consequences for our industry, which prides itself on constant improvement, on quality standards that are the most stringent in the world, and on bringing economic benefit to people and communities.