June 26, 2013

Vietnam seafood exporters blame farmers for blacklist status


Vietnam's efforts to restore the local seafood industry's tarnished reputation have been hampered, with exporters still blaming farmers for successive trade fiascos.

In August 2011, the agriculture ministry issued a notice to export companies to submit samples for testing before shipping aside from their usual tests. However, two years after its implementation, no improvement has been observed and exporters are pointing their fingers at farmers for their poor handling of their products, according to a recent report in theThoi bao Kinh te Saigon.

The companies say testing samples will not help improve seafood quality and hygiene and they should not fix the problems created at seafood farms.

Figures from the ministry show that Vietnam has been leading the blacklist for poor quality seafood exports to the EU, Japan and Canada for the past three years, compared to other exporters like Indonesia, China and Thailand. During that period, the EU found 112 shipments from Vietnam with violation in antibiotic residues and other chemicals, while Japan listed 317.

Nguyen Hai Trieu, director of Gio Moi Seafood, an exporter in Ho Chi Minh City, says these figures show that the ministry is not dealing with the issue on relevant grounds.

According to Trieu, the complaints are not about unhygienic processing at factories, but about the materials used by farmers.

"The regulation only tackles the tip of the problem," he said, adding that in order to be licensed to export seafood to major markets like Japan or the EU, companies need to equip themselves with machines to analyse and control hygiene risks when processing.

Trieu said Japan has returned many shrimp shipments from Vietnam due to high residues of Ethoxyquin, an antioxidant used as a food preservative, and Trifluralin which is a pre-emergence herbicide, both coming from animal feed.

Phan Thanh Chien, general director of Hai Viet, a seafood exporter in the southern beach town of Vung Tau, also expressed unhappiness that the regulation targets exporters.

Chien said his company does not produce antibiotics, for example, or add them to the products, but had to spend VND9 billion (US$427,860) on quality checks last year, one-third of it on tests conducted by the ministry. Given the global competition, "the government should have helped with reducing our expenses," said Chien. 

Other members of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors also say that the ministry is creating more resrtictions which affect their competitiveness.

Nguyen Huu Dung, vice chairman of the association, said he supported the idea from the beginning, but businesses were not given opportunities to discuss the measure before it was implemented.

The regulations were drafted by the ministry's National Agro-Forestry-Fisheries Quality Assurance Department (Nafiqad), the country's only agency monitoring and granting licenses for seafood imports and exports.

Dung said the regulations severely affected the seafood industry, which is a major foreign currency earner, but Nafiqad only gave companies one week for feedback, with discussions lasting just over an hour. He noted that the department had spent more than 18 months writing the regulations, studying similar regulations in other countries.

Nguyen Nhu Tiep, head of the department, said he did not personally decide on the necessity of the tests or the number of tests that need to be done. He had ordered them based on foreign customers' demands. However, former deputy agriculture minister, Nguyen Thi Hong Minh, said that the ministry should shift its attention to the farmers and fisherfolks.

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