US catfish bill ‘unfair,’ will harm Vietnam exports: analysts

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A processing plant belonging to tra fish exporter Agifish

A recently approved US bill requiring imported fish to be raised in conditions meeting standards set by the US Department of Agriculture is protectionist and will harm Vietnamese exporters, analysts warn.

The 2014 Farm Bill requires the USDA to take over oversight of imports of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration, which just checks food safety and hygiene.

News website Saigon Times quoted Le Chi Binh, vice chairman of the An Giang Fishery Association, as saying Vietnam’s exports of basa and, especially, tra would be badly affected.

The USDA Catfish Inspection Program, part of the bill, requires the raising, production, and processing of the fish to follow its own standards, which would take Vietnamese exporters at least 5-7 years to achieve, according to Vietnam’s trade counselor in the US, Dao Nhan Tran.

The bill sets a deadline of 60 days since it takes effect on February 7 for the catfish office to finalize its rules and a year to implement them.

Totally unfair

Analysts said it would be unreasonable if Vietnamese fish pass safety tests around the world and are exported to numerous countries but are rejected in the US.

Last year exports of tra stood at US$1.8 billion, or 30 percent of the country's total fisheries exports. Tra shipments to the US alone were worth $300 million.  

The new legislation is a technical barrier to prevent Vietnamese businesses from boosting their exports to the US and protect that country's domestic industry, Binh said.

Vietnam's tra fish definitely meet the quality requirements set by the US, he said, adding that exporters have been adopting global standards including those set by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Global Good Agricultural Practice.

The Vietnamese embassy in the US said in a press release that Washington's move means it is ignoring its commitment to free and fair trade with its developing partners in Asia.

The catfish program is an “unjustified regulatory measure” to deny access to Vietnamese fish exporters rather than to improve food safety, it said.

Nguyen Quoc Cuong, the Vietnamese ambassador, called it “totally unfair”, adding that American exports to Vietnam are rising from the 2012 figure of $1.6 billion, but in return Vietnamese farmers have to face the protectionist measure.

The release said an overwhelming number of Congress members have publicly pointed out that it is an unfair trade barrier.

Truong Dinh Hoe, general secretary of The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, said the US’s purpose was “very clear.”

But he expected the Vietnamese catfish industry not to be directly affected this year since it would take the USDA time to complete a number of tasks before it could put the program into action.

He said the Vietnamese government should study the case to file a lawsuit at the World Trade Organization against the US’s protection of its fisheries industry.

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