Fish sauce draft standards suspended

By Thi Ha - Nguyen Ha   March 12, 2019 | 09:24 pm PT
Fish sauce draft standards suspended
A woman holds bottles of traditional fish sauce. Photo by VnExpress/Thi Ha
The draft national fish sauce standard has been withdrawn after strident protests and criticism from traditional producers. 

The Ministry of Science and Technology Tuesday temporarily suspended the draft National Standards on the Production of Fish Sauce prepared by the Agricultural Processing and Market Development Authority. This is an agency that functions under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).

"The new set of standards must receive consensus from all affected parties in society, achieve an appropriate balance of interest for those affected, and be suitable for the current development of the industry" Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Pham Cong Tac said, adding the consensus and fairness were fundamental criteria when enacting new regulations. 

The set of standards, which MARD had transferred to the Directorate for Standards, Metrology and Quality (Ministry of Science and Technology) for re-appraisal, did not meet the above three conditions.

This prompted the Ministry of Science and Technology to temporarily withdraw the draft for further consultation with organizations, associations and experts.

Deputy Minister Tac added his ministry will continue collaborating with MARD to collect opinion by holding conferences and surveys to achieve consensus and ensure there are no specific benefits for any group. 

The draft regulation seeks to impose technical standards on fish sauce, covering its chemical content, production processes and storage.  

The draft National Standards, released earlier this year has been met with fierce criticism from traditional fish sauce producers for imposing unreasonable standards.  

Representatives of traditional fish sauce production organizations said that the standards unfairly favor industrial production of fish sauce, effectively undermining and even destroying traditional practices.

 They have noted that many traditional fish sauce making establishments have had to shut down in some areas. 

They also said they make fish sauce from saltwater fish, mainly anchovies, sardines and scad, but can also make it with dried fish, shellfish, mussels, and crabs. After a period of fermentation in salt for a year of two, the fish sauce is extracted and consumed. 

Industrial fish sauce, on the other hand, is with water, salt, sugar, anchovies and additives such as flavoring, preservatives, food coloring extracted from fruit, and synthetic sweeteners.

Many traditional fish sauce companies have called for the draft national standard to be discarded.

Earlier this month, representatives of multiple organizations such as the Vietnam Traditional Fish Sauce Club, the Minh Bach Food Association, the Business Association of High Quality Vietnamese Products, the HCMC Food Association and fish sauce associations in Nha Trang, Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc sent a joint letter to Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, as well as the ministers of agriculture and science, on their proposed amendments to the draft national standard.

In the letter, the representatives accused the draft of promoting the development of industrial fish sauce and creating technical barriers to eliminate traditional fish sauce production without recognizing and clarifying the differences between the two.

They requested instead that separate national standards are formulated for traditional and industrial fish sauce production.

A misunderstanding

At a press conference last Friday, the Department of Agricultural Processing and Market Development claimed that the businesses' concerns and criticisms were due to a misunderstanding.

Dao Trong Hieu, deputy head of the department's Fisheries Market Development Unit, said the draft national standard only presents guidelines and recommendations for fish sauce producers, instead of enforced requirements, so that they ensure food safety and protect the environment.

He said that the draft only identifies indicators that could pose a risk during fish sauce production, instead of setting specific limits for these indicators.

In the case of the draft's requirement for the control of veterinary drugs and pesticide residues, Hieu said that as both saltwater and freshwater fish could be used to make fish sauce, this section of the draft is only meant to serve as a recommendation for producers that use freshwater fish while those that use saltwater fish do not need to comply with it.

As for the lack of differentiation between traditional and industrial fish sauces, he admitted that the draft's authors did not differentiate because all fish sauces need to meet technical standards to reduce risk.

Following the businesses' comments and requests, Deputy PM Vu Duc Dam has instructed the agriculture ministry to carefully research the organizations and associations' opinions, as well as hold dialogues with them to ensure a national standard that would safeguard the health and rights of consumers.

"The requirements and standards must not negatively affect the production and commerce of traditional fish sauce," he said.

Three years ago, Vietnam fined scores of news outlets for publishing now-discredited reports about toxic fish sauce, accusing them of sparking public panic over the staple condiment in a country plagued by food scares.

Reports said that some traditional fish sauce contained dangerously high levels of arsenic, with local media mainly citing a survey by the state-controlled Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association (Vinastas).

"The news caused panic in our society, causing consumers to boycott traditional fish sauce... seriously undermining Vietnam's age-old fish sauce production," according to the Ministry of Information and Communication.

In Vietnam, fish sauce is consumed daily by most of the country's population of 95 million -- as a dipping sauce, marinade or in soups.

According to information from the Ho Chi Minh City Food Association, on average, Vietnam consumes 250 million liters of fish sauce each year. 

Of this, traditional fish sauce only accounts for about 60 million liters, while industrial fish sauce accounts for nearly 190 million liters, equivalent to 70 percent of the domestic market share.

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