By Lien Hoang
U.S. companies trundled their scallops and tuna to Vietnam this week, seeking new buyers at a time when Chinese tariffs threaten to choke off U.S. seafood exports.
The 14 businesses—including Trident Seafoods Corp. and Bornstein Seafoods Inc.—on the Sept. 8-11 trip hope to feed an increasingly wealthy Vietnam, which has the world’s top growth rate of super-rich and which snapped up foreign fish at twice the volume in 2016 versus 2012.
But U.S. fish is not what’s for dinner, typically, in Vietnam. The country sells far more seafood to the U.S. than it buys, even as Hanoi has a case pending against U.S. catfish inspections at the World Trade Organization.
U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that American seafood exports to Vietnam surged from $8 million in 2008 to $115 million in 2017. That data also show that Vietnamese fish and seafood exports to the U.S. climbed from $766 million in 2008 to $1.4 billion in 2017.
U.S. seafood companies need foreign markets because they process more than can be sold at home, said Stephanie Agee, marketing director at Virginia’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We find it incredibly important to diversify our markets, again, whether it’s the tariff situation we’re dealing with or just to find more customers for this higher volume of product,” Agee said at a fish expo in Ho Chi Minh City, where visitors dangled still-squirming lobsters to snap selfies and where exporters were matched up with Vietnamese distributors and processors.
Beijing imposed a 25-percent tariff on U.S. seafood in July, part of its response to U.S. duties on $50 billion worth of Chinese exports in June. U.S. seafood exports to China weighed in at $1.2 billion in 2017, making it the No. 1 export market for American fish.
Rounding out the field of 14 U.S. seafood companies at the expo were The Alaska Guys, Blue North Fisheries, Broadway Morris Trade Co., Golden Aleutian Seafood, Greenhead Lobster LLC, Icicle Seafood Inc., Lobster Trap Co. Inc., Maine Coast, Rappahannock Oyster Co., Ready Seafood Co., Sea Watch International Ltd., and Sugpiaq Seafood.
Alaska pollock and Pacific halibut don’t wind up in the bowls of many Vietnamese, who have their own long tradition of marine fare. If it’s dawn, they’re at wet markets buying live tilapia from buckets. If it’s night, they’re perched on stools devouring mussels and snails from street vendors.
Tastes are changing, though, and food safety is a rising priority, said To Anh Kiet, general manager of Amanda Seafood in Ho Chi Minh City.
“As our living standards are improving, we want to try new and strange things,” he told Bloomberg Law, citing a Vietnamese cliche, “an ngon mac dep,” which means people now care about eating well, not just surviving.
Kiet’s company imports Maine lobster and oysters, with plans to add salmon and king crab from the U.S.
Other Vietnamese companies at the expo included Denti Foods, Incomfish, and Preferred Freezer Services, while major exporters to the U.S. are Minh Phu, Vinh Hoan, and Bien Dong
Amanda Seafood also exports shrimp and catfish to the U.S., which Vietnam accuses of misusing catfish inspections as a technical trade barrier. Hanoi took the case to the WTO in February and remains in talks with Washington. In March, China requested to join the talks, arguing the inspections affect its similar fish exports.
“This has a serious impact on us,” Kiet said, calling the tests unfair. “Vietnam opened its door to the U.S. and the U.S. did the same. This is what free trade is all about.”
Ready Seafood and Greenhead Lobster already export to Vietnam, but they are going against the current. The U.S. sold $115 million worth of seafood to Vietnam in 2017, a small fraction compared to the $1.4 billion flowing in the opposite direction, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
But in this sector Vietnam is still the ninth-biggest U.S. customer, and growing.
“It’s also the same question that could be asked of Americans, you know, why are we selling these products when Americans could eat them?” Colleen Coyne, seafood program coordinator at Food Export USA-Northeast, told Bloomberg Law.
The answer, she said, is variety. With Vietnam selling shrimp and catfish, and the U.S. supplying lobsters and clams, the two sides aren’t always direct rivals.
“That’s why America imports a lot of different products,” Coyne said, “and why we can export a lot of different seafood.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at email@example.com
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