Fish sauce draft standards suspended

The draft national fish sauce standard has been withdrawn after strident protests and criticism from traditional producers.

Businesses who make the sauce the traditional way have called the draft unrealistic and one that would destroy their livelihood.

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

"There was no consensus," said Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Pham Cong Tac, commenting on the withdrawal.

"The new set of standards must receive consensus from all affected parties in society, as well as achieve an appropriate balance of interest for those affected," he said, adding the consensus and fairness were fundamental criteria when enacting new regulations.

He also said that the Ministry of Science and Technology will continue collaborating with the Ministry of Agriculture to collect opinion by holding conferences and surveys to meet the said criteria. Amendments to this draft regulation will ensure the protection of health and interests of consumers while not harming producers.

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

They said the draft requires fish sauce makers to limit pesticide residues, which traditional fish sauce makers consider "absurd," when their products are made purely from saltwater fish.

"Freshwater fish is not used to make fish sauce. The regulation will force us to waste money testing for chemicals that have no risk of existing in the product. They were not there to begin with," Nguyen Quoc Hung, deputy director of Hanh Phuc Food Processing JSC, told VnExpress.

Furthermore, he added, the draft had already gone through several versions, but most businesses have only learnt of it recently to voice their opinions.

Hung also stressed that the draft equates traditional and industrial fish sauce production despite significant differences. While the production of traditional fish sauce follows a strict process from raw material collection to fermenting, distilling and bottling, industrial fish sauce production only involves the last step of this process.

By not clearly differentiating between these two production processes, the proposed standards would confuse consumers, he argued.

Speaking to VnExpress, the head of another traditional fish sauce company from southern central town of Phan Thiet complained that the draft standards did not correctly distinguish different types of fish sauce. While it categorizes fish sauce into pure and general versions, the market actually differentiates these products as ‘traditional’ and ‘industrial’.

Further, he criticized the draft’s cap on histamine in fish sauce, saying only industrial producers will be able to meet this standard because their product is diluted.

"For generations fish sauce with high protein levels have been the Vietnamese tradition. Although the process of fermenting anchovies to make sauce produces histamine, a person consumes so little of fish sauce a day it would never reach the level that triggers allergic reactions," he said.

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.

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