Workers process shrimps at a seafood plant in the Mekong Delta
Vietnam's efforts to repair its damaged seafood reputation after several rejections over quality concerns are not likely to end anytime soon as the industry is still divided over who must take responsibility for the fiasco.
The agriculture ministry in August 2011 issued a notice asking export companies to submit samples for testing before shipping besides performing their own regular tests on the input.
But nearly two years later, the measure has not been well received with exporters blaming the problem on farmers, according to a recent report in the Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon.
The companies say testing samples will not help improve seafood quality and hygiene, and that they do not want be the one fixing the problems created at seafood farms.
Figures from the ministry show that Vietnam has been leading the blacklist for poor quality seafood exporter to the EU, Japan and Canada for the past three years, compared to other exporters like Indonesia, China and Thailand.
In the last three years, the EU found 112 shipments from Vietnam with violations of antibiotic residues and other chemicals, while Japan listed 317.
Nguyen Hai Trieu, director of Gio Moi Seafood, an exporter in Ho Chi Minh City, cited these figures to show the ministry is barking up the wrong tree.
Trieu said the complaints are not about unhygienic processing at factories, but about the materials used by farmers.
"The regulation only taps the top of the problem," he said, adding that in order to be licensed to export seafood to big markets like Japan or the EU, companies already need to equip themselves with machines to analyze 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.
Chien said given the global competition, "the government should have helped with reducing our expenses."
Other members of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors also say the ministry is creating more red tape that affects their competitiveness.
Nguyen Huu Dung, vice chairman of the association, said he supported the idea from the beginning, but businesses were not given many chances 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 heavily affected the seafood industry, which is a major foreign currency earner, but Nafiqad only gave companies one week to comment on them and discussions lasted 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.
"As long as a company's shipments show improvement, I would reduce the tests required on its other products," Tiep said.
But former deputy agriculture minister Nguyen Thi Hong Minh also said focusing on the exporters is not effective management.
"The processing stage at companies is pretty alright now, so I think the ministry should shift its focus to fishing and farming activities to solve the problem at its root," Minh told Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon.
She said that when she was still in office in 2007, the ministry had received support from many Danish government projects to train farmers breeding fish to adopt safety practices.
The projects organized farmers into cooperatives and thus made it easy to supervise them, she said.
"But now after many years, I look at it and see that things have gone back to the situation where farmers breed whatever they want, and use whatever animal feed and chemicals they want."
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