In this undated photo, fish sauce is poured from a wooden vat after years of brewing at Thanh Quoc Fish Sauce Manufacturing Facility on Phu Quoc island, Kien Giang province, Vietnam. (PHOTO / VIET NAM NEWS)
HANOI — Traditional fish sauce makers are concerned that a new draft code of practice prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development will see their business wiped out by industrial-size rival.
Nguyen Thi Tinh grew up with the scent of Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam).
She is part of the fourth generation of a fish sauce making family with a tradition going back almost 130 years.
As a child, Nguyen was often taken to her family’s warehouse, where her parents would tell her how to choose good anchovies and other natural inputs to make good fish sauce.
Traditional fish sauce is free from preservatives as salt and high amino acid content helps preserve the liquid naturally. But industrial fish sauce - a mixture of diluted fish sauce and flavoring, coloring, and sweeteners, can’t be stored for long without preservatives.
Tran Thi Dung, Expert in fish sauce making, Vietnam
She understands the lengthy process and hardship involved in making the condiment that is indispensable to Vietnamse cuisine.
Among six siblings, she was the only one taught to make fish sauce and is the only one working with it.
“I told myself I will try to keep the tradition alive and not to let it die,” she said.
But Nguyen, like many other traditional fish sauce makers on Phu Quoc island in Kien Giang province, is worried that her worst fears might come true, that all traditional fish sauce makers will be wiped out of the market.
Their worries are not unfounded.
An odious combination of controversial rules and false propaganda have given them a taste of things to come.
Since last month, traditional fish sauce makers have been opposing a draft National Standard Code of Practice for the Production of Fish Sauce prepared by the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development.
They say that the draft unfairly equates the traditional fish sauce, which is made with natural ingredients, with industrially produced ones that have chemical content.
The draft has rules inconsistent with actual fish sauce production, they assert.
Tran Thi Dung, an expert in fish sauce making who used to work with the Science and Technology Department under MARD, also said the rules were vague and inappropriate.
“First of all, the draft gives out two definitions for ‘fish sauce’ and ‘genuine fish sauce.’ Why not ‘fish sauce’ and ‘industrially made fish sauce?’”
Tran explained that the sauce is basically made with fish and salt. The fish is coated in salt and fermented for up to two years.
“Traditional fish sauce is free from preservatives as salt and high amino acid content helps preserve the liquid naturally. But industrial fish sauce — a mixture of diluted fish sauce and flavoring, coloring, and sweeteners, can’t be stored for long without preservatives,” she said.
"Such industrially made products can’t be called fish sauce at all," Tran said.
She also pointed out other irrational rules in the draft.
“The draft requires that all surfaces with direct contact with the fish have to be made of materials with light colours. In reality, tanks used to ferment fish are made of either wood or terracotta, which are of dark colour.”
Another criterion in the draft that will only create trouble for fish sauce makers is the standard for controlling veterinary medicines and plant protection products.
“Raw materials for the preparation of fish sauce is sea fish which cannot have veterinary medicines. This means that the rule forces traditional fish sauce makers to pay for tests…,” she said.
Vu The Thanh, a food safety expert with the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, echoed Tran.
“I find regulations on hygiene criteria for the fermentation process unreasonable and only suitable for canning processes or for processing frozen seafood. The salt proportion in fish sauce is very high and almost saturated, which means no bacteria can live in it,” he said.
“I feel that those who drafted these rules have no practical knowledge of fish sauce making and have come up with criteria that only chemical added fish sauce makers can meet,” Vu said.
He also rejected an argument made by an agriculture ministry representative that the rules were based on a code of practice for fish sauce production jointly drafted by Vietnam and Thailand.
The Codex Alimentarius (or "Food Code” - a collection of standards, guidelines and codes of practice) is adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which does not really have an idea about fish sauce making, and asked Vietnam and Thailand to draft a code of practice for their approval.
The approved Codex criteria on fish sauce making require that the histamine content not exceed 400 milligrams per liter. This is impossible for traditionally made fish sauce, Vu said.
The higher nitrogen level means that more fish is used and the quality is higher, but it also means higher level of histamines
Vietnam is the only country in the world that makes fish sauce with nitrogen level of 30 degrees or more, Vu said.
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The higher nitrogen level means that more fish is used and the quality is higher, but it also means higher level of histamines.
Normally, the histamine level in traditional fish sauce with natural flavour made in Vietnam ranges from 700 to 1200 milligrams per liter.
Le Tran Phu Duc, Director of the Phan Thiet Fish Sauce Company, said the level poses no harm to consumers.
“A person would only have a very small amount of histamine each day if he or she uses fish sauce, and we’ve never heard of any case of histamine allergy among people using fish sauce,” Le said.
If the new criteria are applied, all traditional fish sauce making would end and there would be only industrial fish sauce left.
Vu said the draft, in general, favours industrial fish sauce producers at the expense of the traditional fish sauce makers.
“Recently, a whole village in Nha Trang that had made fish sauce for many generations has been wiped out and most households have shifted to producing materials for industrial fish sauce producers.
“Where is our traditional fish sauce production headed to if this situation spreads?”
On Oct 17, 2016, the nonprofit Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association (Vinastas) announced laboratory results showing that 67 percent of tested samples of fish sauce in Vietnam exceeded arsenic limits deemed safe for human consumption.
Arsenic content was remarkably high in traditional fish sauce samples, but within the legal limit in industrial fish sauce.
When the media published these findings, it went viral on social media and shook public trust in traditional fish sauce, which consumers had long preferred over industrial versions.
Industrial fish sauce … should not try to blur the line between them and traditional fish sauce, and most of all, not try to kill Vietnam’s traditional craft in order to monopolize the market
Vu Kim Hanh, Chairwoman, The Association of High Quality Vietnamese Products Entrepreneurs, Vietnam
Several supermarkets also removed traditional fish sauce from their shelves. The fallout threatened to affect the livelihood of millions of fishermen and caused fish sauce dealers and customers much anxiety.
The Agriculture Ministry then conducted tests on 247 samples from 82 fish sauce producing facilities. The results showed all samples to be safe. These test results clarified that the arsenic in the traditional fish sauce was organic, which is much safer than the lethal inorganic arsenic. The organic arsenic in fish sauce poses no harm to human health, it found
Vinastas made a public apology and rectified the false information.
The draft national standards on fish sauce production was temporarily halted Tuesday after all the ruckus it raised.
Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam has entrusted the Agriculture Ministry to collect opinions of organisations and associations about standards for fish sauce, requiring that they should not cause negative impacts on the production and business of traditional fish sauce makers.
Nguyen, owner of the Thanh Quoc Fish Sauce Company, said she felt a bit relieved, but not too much.
“Traditional fish sauce makers like us would like relevant authorities to hold a scientific seminar and discuss this matter and collect opinions of all experts and fish sauce producers.
“Most of all, we want to have totally separate production criteria for fish sauce and industrially made fish sauce,” Nguyen said.
Vu The Thanh said he had nothing against industrially made fish sauce, but a line has to be drawn.
“Industrially made fish sauce is still used by many people and the producers are able to meet the demand of a large part of the consumption market that traditional fish sauce makers can’t.
But we have to protect our traditional heritage and not let it die unreasonably.”
Vu Kim Hanh, chairwoman of The Association of High Quality Vietnamese Products Entrepreneurs, said she agreed completely.
“Industrial fish sauce makers are free to make whatever they want and sell them to the market, but they should not try to blur the line between them and traditional fish sauce, and most of all, not try to kill Vietnam’s traditional craft in order to monopolize the market.
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