Struan Stevenson: “EATING HUMBLE (FISH) PIE”

Immediately after his trip to Vietnam, Mr. Stevenson wrote this op-ed article showing how the visit profoundly altered his wiews on Vietnamese Pangasius in a very positive manner.

Humble pie is a dish best served cold and eaten slowly! In my case, the pie was filled with fish. To be precise, it was filled with Pangasius. It is always difficult for a politician to admit to being wrong, but here goes. I was an arch critic of Pangasius, more than 230,000 tonnes of which were imported into the EU from Vietnam in 2010. Pangasius is a white-fleshed, freshwater-farmed catfish, commonly sold in our supermarkets as Panga Fish or Vietnamese River Cobbler. Most of it comes from the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam, an area teeming with fish farms, over 1600 of which raise Pangasius. Shrimp farms also abound in this hot and humid area of South-East Asia.

I made several speeches and wrote some strongly worded articles attacking this trade, repeating commonly heard prejudices that the Vietnamese fish farms were un-regulated and polluted and their fish processing factories were dirty and unhygienic. I could not have been more wrong. My first sharp rebuttal came from an unexpected source – The Institute of Aquaculture at StirlingUniversity in my own constituency. The large team at Stirling have been working with the Vietnamese fish farmers for years, training them on all aspects of hygiene, welfare, feeding and fish health. They gave me a half-day crash course.

Next, the Vietnamese Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) invited me to visit the Mekong Delta and see for myself the condition of their fish farms and processing factories. In addition, the Vietnamese Government invited me to meet Vice Minister of Agriculture & Rural Development cum General Director of Directorate of Fisheries – Mr Vu Van Tam and Vice Minister of Agriculture & Rural Development – Ms Nguyen Thi Xuan Thu, in Hanoi.

My short and highly intensive visit to Vietnam was a real eye-opener. There are over 20 species of catfish in the MekongRiver, but only 5 have proved suitable for farming and only 3 of these are fast growing and ideal for marketing in the West. Pangasius can grow from fingerling size to full adult in only 7 months, allowing a rapid turnaround and increased profitability. Most of the fish farms in the Mekong Delta are family-owned with around 3 or 4 staff. However there are an increasing number of larger fish farms employing over 100 staff. It’s the big, efficient ones that export to Europe.

The processing factories typically employ 1500 to 2000 workers, up to 80% of which are women. Indeed many of the leading aquaculture and fish-processing businesses are run by women. Aquaculture is big business in Vietnam and a major employer, although wage levels are low by international standards. A fish-farm worker will earn around $2.5 to $7.7 per day, often with free accommodation and meals provided by the fish farm. Some more progressive fish farms even provide education and transport children by boat to and from their schools.

I visited the Vinh Hoan Corporation, run by a dynamic woman called Truong Thi Le Khanh, who founded the company in 1999. She now employs over 4000 staff, most of them women. Vinh Hoan has not only been inspected and approved by the European Commission, but the company’s extensive fish farms and processing plants are regularly audited by ASDA, TESCO, CARREFOUR and many of the major EU supermarket chains and pass muster every time. It is an over-used cliché but nevertheless accurate in this case: the vast Vinh Hoan factory in Cao Lanh was so spotlessly clean that you could literally eat your dinner off the floor.

Far from the dirty, unhygienic and polluted business I had written about, I discovered a dynamic new industry, meeting world-class welfare and hygiene standards and producing a quality product under first-rate conditions. Fish farms provide jobs and income for millions of desperately poor people in the Mekong Delta, in secure jobs with proper social security benefits and pension provisions. The bio-security I encountered in the Vinh Hoan factory was second to none. The army of workers were clad in white gowns, hairnets, hats, gloves and boots. There was a constant system of washing and disinfecting. I have rarely seen anything better in Europe.

Remembering that Europe is only 60% self-sufficient in fish products and there is a rising demand for good, healthy fish by European consumers, it is vitally important for us to source our imports from producers who meet the highest standards. I found this certainly to be the case in Vietnam.

It is also the case that Pangasius is not a competitive threat to our own growing aquaculture sector. InScotland, we employ over 6000 people in the fish farming industry, mostly engaged in farming salmon and trout. These are oily fish, essential for human health and a fine source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Panga Fish on the other hand, are white-fleshed, similar to cod or haddock and have few bones. They are popular with chefs and often sold in various sauces and fish stews to give them added flavour.

The EU has benefited from the rapid expansion of fish farming in Vietnam. I could see for myself how European companies are selling high-tech equipment to the Pangasius sector. The Vinh Hoan Corporation had forming, breading and frying machines from the Netherlands, plate freezers and metal detectors from the UK and sizing and skinning machines from Belgium.

So as I tucked into my large helping of humble pie filled with Pangasius, I reflected on how with burgeoning demand for these quality fish products from Vietnam in new markets like China and Japan, the sky’s the limit for EU businesses which take advantage of these opportunities.

STRUAN STEVENSON, MEP

Mr. Struan Stevenson is a Conservative Euro MP for Scotland and senior Vice President of the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee.

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4 Responses to Struan Stevenson: “EATING HUMBLE (FISH) PIE”

  1. I too visted Vinh Hoan Corporation only last week. I also visted other potential and current suppliers of Pangasius on my trip to the Meekong Delta . Every processing plant we visited had first rate conditions and would not hesitate to purchase from any of these.

  2. qexpertise says:

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for your comment. I am involved since 4 years in the Pangasius industry and i fully agree with you. Food safety in pangasius processing plan is ensured almost everywhere.

    So as a buyer, what do you think of the pangasius situation right now?

    • housni elmaskoune says:

      I would like to start pangasius farming in North Africa in order to be closer to the EU market. Do you think this is a good idea?

  3. Although from the shellfish sector, I found this article very enlightening, and refreshing/humbling. There is honor in standing up and stating publicly that the reality is not always what others make it to be. What strikes me in this exposé is the recognition by the Vietnamese aquaculture businesses that, to compete internationally, you have to stand up to the best of standards. Mr Stevenson eloquently showed us this, and more importantly, his tale is based on his visit to the region with a first-hand account. Greater awareness will certainly be important in promoting the value of aquaculture in the coming years.

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