Two televised reports critical of the Vietnamese pangassius farming industry have been picked up widely by French food and health websites. VASEP says the television reports and websites fabricate food safety issues in order to keep Vietnamese imports out of French markets.

'In a battle to win market share, many people will slander each other,' said Nguyen Huu Dung, deputy chairman of VASEP. 'These websites are just reporting wrong ideas.'

European environmental and food safety organizations largely say concerns over the safety of pangassius imports in Europe are misplaced. They say the fish are safe to eat but that more needs to be done to address the environmental sustainability of the industry.

'The European Union has a very good system for checking the quality of imported products,' said Flavio Corsin, an aquaculture advisor at the environmentalist organization WWF who works on the Vietnamese pangassius industry. 'I'm Italian, and when I go to Italy, I eat pangassius, because I know where it's coming from and I know that the process of checking it is good.'

The French reports include 'Saga of the Panga,' broadcast in 2007 on the television channel France 2, and 'What is a Panga?', broadcast on the cable channel M6. They focus on water pollution in the Mekong Delta, where the pangassius farming industry is concentrated, and on the use of antibiotics, and also note that the method for breeding the fish involves the use of a hormone isolated from the urine of pregnant women to stimulate females to produce eggs.

The reports provide no data for comparing pollution in the Mekong to that in European fisheries. While hormones are used on a few breeder females to stimulate egg production, they are not used in raising the fish who are harvested, and are thus not present in filets sold in supermarkets.

Corsin said antibiotics were no longer a problem in pangassius shipments to Europe, and that while Vietnamese fish sometimes failed EU safety inspections, fish harvested within the European Union sometimes failed as well.

WWF is leading negotiations between Vietnamese producers and European importers to establish certification procedures for sustainable pangassius farming. The standards would address issues such as biodiversity, chemicals and antibiotics, and social responsibility.

Commenters on the French websites worried about the provenance of an unfamiliar fish which only appeared in the European market within the last five years, and were anxious over issues such as globalization and chemicals.

But Vietnamese officials took the reports as an attempt to block the inroads made by Vietnamese fish on the French market.

A report in the newspaper Dau Tu on Monday quoted Truong Dinh Hoe, VASEP's general secretary, calling the reports 'an organized slanderous program aiming at damaging the prestige of Vietnamese tra and basa pangassius fish on the international market.'

Vietnam had no significant pangassius exports to the European Union before 2003. In 2007, Vietnam exported 3.75 billion dollars worth of seafood, including some 1.5 million tons of pangassius, with half of those exports going to the EU.

Monsters & Critics - May 19, 2008