Pangasius; a look behind the scenes
I’ve been thinking on how to write this blog post for quite some time. After our trip and during our trip in Vietnam there were quite a few negative reactions. Not because we were going to Vietnam, but much more because we were visiting a pangasius farm. I got reactions ranging from ‘ fish who eats his own dirt’, to ‘tasteless and poisonous’ and the list goes on. The one reaction more fanatic than the next. And because I really wanted to know your thoughts on panga I placed something on facebook. And got a whole list of complaints and negative reactions.
How did it all start?
Somewhere in 2013 Francesca from Francesca Kookt placed something on twitter on pangasius filet. That it was the new bio industrie chicken and that we should maybe start getting worried about that. Harry Hoogendoorn, the owner of Queens responded to this; he invited Francesca to come to Varsseveld (where the company is located) and explain her all the ins- and outs of pangasius. And so it happened and our trip was more or less a follow up of that first contact.
There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to the breeding of pangasius and the fish has had it’s share of bad publicity in the last couple of years.
We were all really curious as to how the whole process would work from raising the fish to the final product in the freezer. So before I start telling you about my experiences let me first clear up a few misconceptions:
- When I talk about pangasius here I am talking about the freezer variety. “Fresh” pangasius is not available here in the Netherlands. The pangasius you can find under the name ‘fresh’ is not fresh but defrosted. If you want to make sure you have the freshest bit of pangasius you can find, than opt for the feezer variety. Not only is it fresher but it is also mostly cheaper as the defrosted fish miraculously becomes more expensive too.
- The fish I am referring too matures in fish farms and not in the actual water of the Mekong river. I have visited Queens who is the biggest importer of pangasius filet here in the Netherlands and we did not visit the smaller local farms you might find around the Mekong area. The water used in the fishponds we visited was highly regulated and checked and refreshed often.
- Per m3 you will find roughly 15 fishes in the water. These are better circumstances than a lot of the reactions on my facebook would suggest. A grown pangasius weighs roughly 1 kilo at the moment of processing. The total process takes around 6-7 months.
You can argue whether or not it is a good thing that the fish are being farmed instead of grown in the wild, but with the current discussions around over fishing the sea this seems one of the sustainable ways to still eat fish. The farms of Vinh Hoan (which is the partner of Queens in Vietnam) where we visited have the ASC quality label ** This label is a guarantee for sustainable farming practices. The fishfarmers need to follow strict rules to get the label. Not only with regards to the handling of the fish, but also in terms of working conditions, wages and how the fish is processed.
During our tour around the factories we started at the end of the process, the marinating of the fillets, before being frozen and packaged per piece for transport to the Netherlands. Where they eventually end up in the freezer compartment of your local supermarket.
From end product we went over the entire process and eventually ended at the beginning of the fish farming; the fishing ponds where the pangasius is being raised. Vinh Hoan is responsible for the entire process, so from fertilizing the eggs in the hatchery to the transportation of the final product to the Netherlands and other countries around the world. Hygiene is a big thing, which meant that we walked around like little marsh men during our visit.
The fishes are delivered straight from the fish ponds to the factory. Before being killed they are sedated with a small electrical burst. This reduces the stress for the fish to a minimum. The cleaning and filleting of the fish happens in a gigantic hal, where hundreds of men and women work lightning fast to clean the fish inside and out.
The remainder of the fish that is not used in the fillet is processed in a separate factory next to the facilities and is used to make gelatin, collagen and fish meal.
All in all I am very impressed with the quality and integrity of the work at Vinh Hoan and Queens. Of course I had my doubts and questions before going to Vietnam but I am definitely positively surprised. And yes, of course there are things that – no doubt – can be improved upon. Like in any industry I would say, but this is a relatively young industry and one that is constantly on the move and with new technologies and new know how things can only get better. I see absolutely no reason not to eat pangasius.
As I promised at the beginning I will respond with my own findings on a few of the comments I received on social media. If you have any questions after reading this article or want to know more than please feel free to leave a comment or question below and I will do my best to answer to the best of my knowledge.
1. The fishes live in the dirty water of the Mekong, so how can that be healthy?
We can be short on this one; the fishes raised by Vinh Hoan do not live in the Mekong but are raised in fish ponds close by. The water in these ponds is filtered and refreshed on a regular basis. And the earlier mentioned ASC quality label dictates that samples of the water need to be tested regularly on PH-value, oxygen and ammoniak levels. The refreshing of the water happens once every three weeks when the fishes are still tiny. And the frequency is increased to once every three days when they get bigger.
Used water goes into large sediment ponds which are filled with giant waterplants that filter the water in a natural way.
2. The fishes are being treated with ‘urine acid’ and hormones
Most likely there is a bit of confusion here around two separate things. First: citric acid was used in the past to clean the fishes. Secondly: I got told that the fish are being injected with urine during the breeding period.
To start with the first one: In the past citric acid and salt was used to clean the fish. This process also made the fish absorb more water, making it 10-20% heavier. Queens has changed their process in such a way that this is no longer necessary. The fish you find in the freezer is 100% pure and without additives.
For the second part: I had to do some digging around but it turns out that HCG was used (or is used) in certain fish farming companies to stimulate the egg production in the female fishes. This is done worldwide – including Europe. HCG is mostly known as a hormone used to aid people who cannot conceive children and the HCG is coming from the urine of pregnant women.
At Vinh Hoan HCG is NOT used for the production or during any part of the fish breeding process.
The fishes are not treated with urine, citric acid, ‘urine’ acid or hormones.
3. The fish is tasteless and I don’t like it
You cannot debate taste of course. The taste of the pangasius is neutral and that makes it the ideal fish to pick up other flavors. In this sense the term ‘waterchicken’ is maybe a correct way to describe the panga. I had quite a bit of pangasius when we were in Vietnam and it ranged from spicy and delicious to crispy with the breaded filets.
I hope I have been able to shed some light on the farming of pangasius filets. And once again, if you do have any questions, please feel free to let me know.
Disclaimer: We were in Vietnam by invitation of Queens and Vinh Hoan. I can therefore only guarantee the quality as described above for the Queens products. If this is the same for other pangasius products you find in the market I cannot tell you.
** The ACS quality label is a label that guarantees a sustainable and responsible method for farming fish and is established in 2010 by the World Wildlife Fund.