Vietnam gets serious about pangasius education

Vietnam’s pangasius industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years. Totaling less than 35,000 metric tons in 2003, the country’s pangasius exports now exceed 600,000 metric tons annually, nearing 660,000 metric tons in 2010. Roughly three-quarters of pangasius exports go to the EU market, while about 12 percent end up in the U.S. market.

Perhaps a consequence of the industry’s explosive growth, education about the catfish-like species has lagged. But the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) is trying to do something about it.

Along with Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and Vietnam’s Embassy in the EU, VASEP hosted a seminar gathering various stakeholders. Held at the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, the seminar was designed to ignite a dialog about pangasius, part of a larger effort by VASEP to heighten awareness of the product and increase transparency of the industry.

Sustainability and hygiene/food safety were common themes during the seminar. During his 30-minute presentation, Nguyen Huu Dzung, standing vice chairman of VASEP, listed the steps that the pangasius industry has taken over the past 10 years to ensure sustainability, including its most recently accomplishment. Following the two-hour seminar, a cooperation agreement was officially signed between Vietnam and GlobalGAP. Known as VietGAP, the voluntary program supports responsible pangasius farming through a set of certification standards.

But Vietnam’s sustainability accomplishments are not necessarily picked up by consumers, whose opinions of pangasius are being skewed by misperception, said panelists. For example, a TV program titled “The Pangasius Lie,” which aired on German TV in March, damaged the industry’s reputation.

“It is so easy to destroy [an industry’s] reputation. It takes 15 minutes of a documentary, and it’s finished for the next 15 years. That’s why it’s important for [the industry] to be transparent,” said Eric Poudelelt, director of food safety for the European Commission’s Directorate-General of Health and Consumers (DG SANCO).

Poudelelt was one of 10 panelists who participated in a roundtable discussion to close out the seminar. Other panelists included Nguyen Thanh Bien, vice minister of Veitnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade; Pham Sanh Chau, Vietnam’s ambassador to the EU, Dr. Patrick Sorgeloos of Ghent University; Johan Verreth of Wageningen University; Guus Pastoor, director of Europe’s Seafood Importers and Processors Alliance; and SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Mike Urch.

In addition to sustainability and hygiene/food safety, panelists also discussed how the seafood industry as a whole is benefitting from pangasius’ presence in the marketplace, because there’s a big demand for inexpensive, mild-tasting whitefish.

“We’re trying to get people to eat more fish. If you look at fish consumption, it’s very low,” said Pastoor. “We’ve analyzed [pangasius] buyers in the Netherlands, and we saw that young people are buying this product because it’s [mild tasting]. We think pangasius is opening new markets for new consumers who don’t really eat fish. And, when we get gray and older, we start appreciating fish more. And then we eat other fish.

“I remember this discussion when Alaska pollock merged in the ‘70s. Fish people were saying, “This is awful,” he added. “And it turned out to be a great fish … for consumers [new to seafood] who started by eating fish fingers and then continued on to other fish.”


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