Pangasius is subject to multiple scare-stories. The fish is allegedly farmed in the dirty waters of Mekong river, working conditions are poor and the fish is contaminated. It is all false, but how to counter this fake news? One of the leading pangasius companies Vinh Hoan has tried for many years by inviting journalists to their farms. Last month, I had the opportunity to join such a press trip. Read and judge for yourself.
It is hard to imagine that under the surface of the peaceful looking ponds next to the loudly howling Mekong river, tons of fish are waiting to be fed. One does not see them, hear them or even smell them. This is possibly the most peaceful farm ever.
That changes when one of the farm workers drags a square meter bag of fish feed on a wooden raft. As soon as the chunks of fish feed touch the water, the pond changes from a peaceful surface to a roaring river.
The fish only present themselves when it is time for feeding, twice a day. At those moments, it sounds like a giant, locally formed rain cloud opens up above the ponds. The rest of the day, the bustling ponds are salutary peaceful.
The fish farm is part of a large estate. Flowers, palm trees, a small office and a little house on the banks of the ponds: it looks like a tiny cozy village where serenity rules. Workers travel by bike from one pond to another, because the farm is quite large. The workers also maintain the garden, trees and flowers that surround the ponds, tells Max Basch, vice president of global sales and marketing of Vinh Hoan.
This company, Vinh Hoan, is one of the leading pangasius companies in Vietnam. It runs a completely vertical integrated production chain and has its own pangasius farms in the Mekong Delta. The company invites journalists to have a look at the farming process in order to tell the real story. Pangasius is, undeserved, subject to much scrutiny in Europe. Max Basch and his team want to show there is nothing wrong with Pangasius. On the contrary: it is a fish that is produced under strict sanitary control and farmed in a responsible way. The transparency is remarkable. We are able to see every step in the process and all our questions are being answered.
Certified all the way
The company is farming in compliance with the so-called ASC standard of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. The ASC standard includes guidelines and minimum requirements for working conditions, animal welfare, local communities and the environment. The standard has been developed in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Consumers can recognize fish that has been responsibly produced through the ASC-trademark on the packaging.
When entering the farm, there is a big sign-board that cannot be missed. It states all do’s and don’ts concerning pangasius farming. Some examples: it is not allowed to use prohibited chemicals, or to dump waste water in the environment.
Sounds logical, yet what happens to waste water from the farms? Usually, once every three days to three weeks –depending on the number of fish swimming in the water- the water is filtered. This process takes place by transferring the water to another basin, in which it is filtered by plants.
Since the water quality also has to live up to above mentioned ASC-standards, the amount of fish waste, the water quality itself and the fish that swim in the water, are being checked constantly and thoroughly.
Pangasius grow up in the ponds until they are between seven and nine months old. At this age, they are big enough to be processed to the fillets that are in demand in the international markets. In large, water filled tanks, the fish are transported to the processing factory. During the transport, the fish stay in the water to reduce discomfort and unnecessary trouble, says Max Basch. When the fish arrive at the factory, they are numbed by an electric shock. After that, they are processed to fillets in a sterile and ultra clean environment that looks like an operation theatre. After the freezing process, they are packed and shipped to Europe or the USA.
Seeing is believing
This experience shows a complete different image than many stories that can be found online. Those stories are not based on first handedly gathered facts and seem to be biased to serve other interests. Vinh Hoan, the company we visited is responsible for a large part of export of pangasius to Europe and the United States. It is a modern and visionary company, compliant with all international standards one can think of. From quality and food safety to responsible production. Its only interest is to handle our future meal, the fish fillet, carefully. Without it, the company has no reason of existence. Witnessing this carefully set up production process, with great attention to the environment and workers and animal welfare, has been a real pleasure. Such visit is highly recommended to all those spreading fake news. The product and the companies deserve better.