Thou blackguard, thou slanderest my fish by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2008, 12:00 pm
Filed under: Trade, Vietnam | Tags: , , ,

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 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.


15 Comments so far
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Nice to see a bit of level-headed commentary about this fish.

I was intigued by it after buying a few fillets for absurdly low prices at our local fishmongers (who also took the time to tell us that it was one of the more sustainable fish available). It was very nice to eat, incidentally.

Coming across the blogs you link to (which, unfortunately, seem to appear quite high in Google results) I was momentarily worried about the real source of this fish. Reading on, however, it became clear that this was blatant propaganda, or at the very best sloppy journalism.

The sad thing is that many people hop on to the first thing they see on the internet, absorb it as fact, and move on.

Comment by Paul

I was also at first affected by what I read. I, together with my family, have been eating the fish for many years as it tastes good, by itself (steamed or fried) or with other ingredients. Never on any occasion did any of us fell ill as a result of eating the fish. I feel more reassured after reading your article. On further reflection, I have come across many other scare-mongering articles and I think this is one of them. I think there are elements of commercial sabotage here in a very competitive fish market. I will not be victims to such unethical methods and therefore will continue enjoying the fish…hopefully at even cheaper prices!

Comment by Daryl

I like teh fish, the fish was gooooooood.

Comment by Ian

I’ve eaten this fish a few times and the other site (the scaremongering one) was the first website that was listed in Google when I was looking for panga recipes. I have some in the refrigerator right now. I think it’s a shame people believe everything they read online. I’ve eaten this fish before and quite like it.

Comment by Victoria

Dear Victoria, I eat this fish a lot! but sometime I suspect there something wrong with it, when I put the fillet into boil water, sometime I smell stink smell came out together with white flock(fat), this the reason lead me to check up the detail on this fish, we Malaysia have poor custom, this fillet are now every way , most fish and chip shop use it!very cheap prices! I been to Vietnam, Mekong river are pollute, rice field are surround it, use of pesticide and fertilize are very common.#Theoretically, if this means fish grow a lot there with vase amount of food. This means the river water is high with nutrient to feed microorganism//=!:) in waste water Engineering,Nutrient has means??? find it yourself!! I will not stop eating fillet, anyway!

Comment by TanTW

It’s nice to read this article, Wayne.

I am Luong Phan Van; I am a Vietnamese; I am a salesman of Pangasius Hypophthalmus. My nationality and my job is not why I am writing this comment. I plan to set up my own business in other fields, still, overreaction from hasty conclusions gets me typing. I would like to take this chance to give all some facts on the safety of the fish.

Pangasius started to be farmed in Vietnam in 1960s, vastly farmed for export since 1994. The exports have been increasing year on year. In 2009 farmed Pangaius were about 1.006 million tons. 607.665 tons exported to 133 markets, mainly European countries. At present, Vietnam accounts for 99.99% Pangasius Hypophthalmus in the world export market.

I agree that some farms do not look very nice. But these numbers were very small and not harmful to our health. If they are all that dirty, poisonous then most of people here in Vietnam and many in 133 imported markets would be seriously ill as they have eaten up 1.006 million tons of Pangasius. Health Authorities could never allow dangerous fish circulation for years. Consummers should know that only qualified factories are allowed to export. Before loading, goods have to be inspected to make sure no bacteria or toxic. Before circulation, Goods are inspected again by imported countries. Before being displayed on shelf, fish may be tested by retailers.

What’s more important is Vietnam authorities are tightening the quality control and farmers are doing better and applying Vietgap, Global GAP … for their farms. As a result, bad ponds are being replaced by better ones.

Farmers are doing well, factories are proved, health authorities say “ok”. So, I’d rather save more time to enjoy life than check out if everyone has as an allergy to Pangasius.

Have fun everyone!

Comment by Luong Phan van (Mr.)

I’m glad to here that enforcement of standards is stringent. I find that reassuring, given the rumors of carelessness you referenced earlier.

Fish spoils faster than meat. Problems people have may just as easily arise from improper thawing, cooking, or storage. Generally, you shouldn’t thaw out frozen fish until you are ready to cook, and you shouldn’t cook until you are ready to eat. A very basic rule.

Some people have allergic reactions to catfish in particular. That’s not disturbing, some people have similar reactions to strawberries or shrimp! But in order to protect the USA catfish industry, these “catfish” are not called catfish in the store. So unwary people can end up with catfish on their plate when they can’t eat catfish without getting an allergic reaction.

There need to be major changes made in labeling of seafood, regardless of how sustainably it was raised…

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Comment by Sacramento handyman

What makes me hopping mad is that ALL the opinions that pandas are dirty, poisonous etc. seem to be deleted or “unavailable” when I try to access them on my “smartphone”. I’m sure this is all hyperenvironmentalistic scaremongery, but I would have liked to compare evidence and decide for myself! That is what internet is supposed to be: it should allow you to freely read all kinds of idiocy and then decide yourself what you want to believe in.

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