According to the Vietnamese newspaper Dau Tu, the head of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP), Truong Dinh Hoe, is hopping mad over a bunch of stuff on French websites accusing Vietnamese catfish (tra and basa, known in France as “panga”) of being filthy, disgusting, unnatural monsters steeped in pollution and illegal antibiotics. He calls the material “slander” aimed at hurting the reputation of Vietnam’s fish farming industry.
Having looked at the websites in question, I’m with the Vietnamese on this. One of the offending sources is a documentary broadcast on a major French TV channel, France 2, in mid-2007 or maybe even late 2006, it’s not quite clear. That documentary itself is pretty tame stuff: it just shows you how the fish are raised in cages under floating houses or in large fish ponds, how they’re transported and fileted at factories, how they’re frozen for shipping to Europe. The raciest part is where they explain that tra and basa weren’t farmable until the late ’90s because their life cycle normally involves swimming up the Mekong to their Cambodian birthplaces to spawn, but in the late ’90s they adapted a technique for artificially stimulating egg-laying which involves injecting female basa with a fertility hormone extracted from the urine of pregnant (human) women. This apparently grosses a lot of people out, and comment threads on French websites are filled with horrified denunciations of tra and basa as examples of those twin evils, globalization and…uh, science, as far as I can tell. (“Sachez donc que ce poisson vendu à prix discount est le produit de la mondialisation et de la transgression des lois naturelles.”) So it’s not the doc as such that offends here, it’s the reaction to it.
Then there’s a post drawing off the French documentary on a site called dietmindspirit.org. This post adds a whole list of vague assertions:
1. Pangas are teeming with high levels of poisons and bacteria. (industrial effluents, arsenic, and toxic and hazardous by-products of the growing industrial sector, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and its metabolites (DDTs), metal contaminants, chlordane-related compounds (CHLs), hexachlorocyclohexane isomers (HCHs), and hexachlorobenzene (HCB)). The reasons are that the Mekong River is one of the most polluted rivers on the planet
Actually, only about 10% of panga are raised directly in the Mekong River on an artisanal basis; most of those destined for export are raised industrially in specially dug ponds that can be isolated for hygiene. While some panga are indeed high in pollutants or antibiotics, the EU conducts aggressive inspections to try to make sure those fish don’t get through, and Vietnam and the EU are involved in intensive negotiations on how to establish certification standards for clean fish, moderated by the WWF. This is a genuine problem, but the way to resolve it is to bring Vietnamese standards up to first-world standards, for everyone’s benefit.
This website also makes the incorrect assertion that panga have a high carbon footprint because some of their feed comes from Peru and they are shipped from Vietnam to Europe. This is silly. Sending small trawlers out to sea to catch fish, then bring them to factory ships for flash-freezing, and then shipping them back to Europe has a higher carbon footprint. Individual fishermen driving to the beach, catching two fish, and driving them home has the highest carbon footprint of all. Tra and basa are raised in staggeringly dense quantities on farms, shipped to nearby factories, and then all stuck in one freighter for shipment to Europe. The industry probably has one of the lowest carbon footprints of any fish around, and that is much of the reason why the price is so low: energy costs money. Also, tra and basa have one of the best ratios of feed to bodyweight of any protein food around — incredibly, it’s around 2 to 1. So that gives them a low impact on the world food chain and a lower carbon footprint.
I’ll cut this short now because I have to write the story up as real news, but the basic point is that this affair is driven by irrational environmental hysteria, not by sane environmentalist thinking. However, all that said and done, it’s a good thing that Europeans are freaking out over Vietnamese basa food safety issues, because that’s what generates pressure on the Vietnamese industry to raise fish cleanly and sustainably — which helps Vietnamese consumers as well as foreigners.
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