Vietnam, importers look to repair damaged image of pangasius in Europe

Vietnam’s pangasius industry has seen its European sales plummet in the months following a damaging expose that aired on Spanish television in January 2017, but at a roundtable at Seafood Expo Global, the sector’s leaders began to formulate a comprehensive strategy to regain its market share.

Globally, Vietnam’s pangasius exports reach 130 countries and are valued at USD 1.6 billion (EUR 1.5 billion) annually. However, in Europe, pangasius’ market share has actually dropped recently, inciting pangasius industry leaders to gather on Tuesday, 25 April, for a roundtable on possible responses and next steps.

Seafood industry consultant Alfons van Duijvenbode led the session, which also included Tran Dinh Luan, the deputy head of the Vietnam’s Directorate of Fisheries, as well as Aquaculture Stewardship Council commercial director Esther Luiten and Eino Brand, the managing director of Spanish pangasius importer and distributor Inlet Seafish.

The panel explored the fallout from the Spanish TV documentary and the resulting decision by various European retailers, led by Carrefour, to stop the sale of pangasius at retail outlets from Belgium to Italy. 

“The perceptions about the safety of pangasius have once again become very clouded over last few months following the documentary broadcast in Spain, and the resulting turmoil that it generated in the press and concern among consumers has badly damaged the reputation of pangasius in Europe,” van Duijvenbode said. “That’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful, sustainable fish product and yet so many counterfactual and damaging claims are being made about it in the media.”

Van Duijvenbode called this the “panga paradox,” referring to the fact that the world will need more aquaculture in the future to feed itself, and despite the fact that pangasius can be produced cheaply and in an environmentally sensitive way, it continues to meet roadblocks, such as the claims made by the Spanish television show, which he called “rubbish.”

“Regarding the report, a lot of the substances supposedly contained in pangasius have never been found and those that have are way below the limits in terms of the accepted limits of food safety legislation,” he said. 

Luan, of Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, defended his country’s pangasius aquaculture sector against the claims made against it by Carrefour and other retailers. Carrefour cited “environmental issues” in its decision to drop the product from its offerings.

“We are heavily regulated by the government and held to international sustainability standards,” Luan said. “We are committed to sustainable development and are continuing to work on improving our processes. Environmental production is our goal for now and the future.”

Luan said of more than 5,000 hactares used in pangasius farming in eight prefectures in Vietnam, 80 percent belong to processors directly, and nearly 70 percent is certified by one or more of the following schemes: VietGAP, ASC, Global G.A.P., Best Aquaculture Practies, or Naturland. 

However, Brand countered by saying that the fishery’s bona fides as a sustainable and legitimate fishery would always be under threat of being undermined by “sensationalist” media reports.

“Pangasius [has been] under attack, not only recently but for many, many years. For the past eight or nine years, negative news has been coming into Spanish market constantly,” Brand said. 

The damage of the most recent TV report has been substantial for Inlet, with pangasius sales dropping 75 percent since it was released. 

“After seeing a 75 percent drop in the first three months of 2017, I don’t predict a quick recovery for pangasius in Spanish markets,” Brand said.

This documentary doesn’t reflect the reality of the pangasius industry, Brand said, but its massive effect on the industry presents a compelling case that Vietnam needs a board or agency tasked with public relations.

“If Vietnam does not take action to combat the concern of the end users of pangasius, then sales will continue to drop,” he said. “The big question is: what do we have to do in order to change?”

The ASC’s Luiten answered that question in part by saying that certification schemes were a part of a solution, but not the “silver bullet.”

“You don’t want to see those kind of lies, especially when you know producers do their best to improve practices. Certification is one of the things that can help you but … there are a lot of things we can do together. However, they will all require dedication and effort,” she said. “Yes, it is challenging, and yes, it is not enough, but we want to collaborate with you to tell story of pangasius in the marketplace.

From the audience at the session, Tam Nguyen, the CEO of Vinh Hoan, a major global export of pangasius, called for  a centralized, structural marketing board or effort to control the message about pangasius.

“We are calling for the support from the other companies and people of the whole [supply] chain including retailers, distributors and importers,” she said. “The question is, we at some day, some point must organize a coalition or joint effort to protect the reputation of the fish and provide more healthy and delicious fish to the market. We need commitments of contributions or support from distributors and retailers.”

Brand  and Van Duijvenbode agreed, and encouraged the study of the examples of marketing board promoting and defending seafood in Alaska, Norway and the Netherlands.

“We should learn from and embrace similar, successful efforts in other parts of the world. [Vietnam] is now securing funding to more into a more structural role of PR in Europe, and is taking lessons from the other guys to have good measures to communicate in the best way possible about pangasius,” ” van Duijvenbode said. “The attitude has to change from being quiet. My best advice would be, don’t sit still. We have to bring out the positive news, otherwise the end user will continue to believe there’s something wrong with pangasius.”


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