As the US, Vietnam's major catfish buyer, prepares to begin tightening its quality inspection rules in about three months time, many local farmers and businesses have condemned the move as illegal and unfair and anticipate an end to their products' presence in the market.
Under the rules—issued by the US Department of Agriculture late last month—both US and foreign catfish suppliers will have to meet new production standards, from farming to processing, in order to sell their products on the US market.
The rules will take effect in March and phase in over 18 months, during which time suppliers will be subject to quarterly on-site inspections and residue sampling by the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Currently, Vietnamese exporters of panagasius catfish (tra fish) are adopting different global quality standards such as B.A.P and GlobalG.A.P. as references for their shipments to the US. Out of Vietnam’s total tra fish exports, roughly 20 percent is shipped to the US, earning an annual revenue of about US$300 million.
The new U.S.-mandated standards, however, mean local farmers and businesses will have to refit their production facilities in order to comply.
Nguyen Phuoc Buu Huy, CEO of Cadovimex II, a seafood exporter in the southern province of Dong Thap, told news website Bao Dau Tu that this would be nearly impossible to do within the time frame laid out by the US Department of Agriculture.
Adapting the facilities and revising their operations will also be expensive for exporters, Vo Hung Dung, vice chairman of Vietnam Pangasius Association told Bao Dau Tu.
He added that even if farmers and businesses are willing to invest their time and money into adhering to the new rules, there is no guarantee they will pass the US authority’s scrutiny. According to Dung, the US has yet to inform exporters what criteria will be applied during inspections.
In a previous interview with news website Saigon Times Online, Dung said Vietnam could lose the US market as a destination for its catfish exports since it is “extremely difficult” to meet the technical requirements and compete with countries, like the U.S., that have much more advanced technology.
Nguyen Ngoc Oai, deputy chief of the Directorate of Fisheries under the Agriculture Ministry, was quoted as saying in Bao Dau Tu that the ministry has been urgently drafting amendments to Vietnam's existing regulations on farming and exporting tra fish in accordance with the US’ new rules.
Speaking to Thanh Nien, Le Chi Binh, vice chairman of An Giang Province Fisheries Seafood Association, said the rules are "obviously unfair."
Binh accused the US of using the stricter rules as a way to protect American catfish producers, who are facing tougher competition as Vietnamese imports have increased rapidly in recent years.
Prior to announcing these regulations, the US had already put up many barriers for Vietnamese pangasius catfish importers, such as labeling rules and anti-dumping taxes, he added.
Dung from the Vietnam Pangasius Association told Bao Dau Tu that the US’ new inspection rules violate World Trade Organization regulations, meaning that Vietnam could bring a lawsuit against the US if tra fish exports are affected.
However, he added, it is difficult and costly to file a lawsuit, especially considering that Vietnam is inexperienced in doing so.
"We can consider filing a lawsuit with the World Trade Organization, but local businesses need to improve their quality as soon as possible," Dung said.