This article is geared towards helping the professional chef deal with product and customer questions regarding Swai. It therefore contains more information than the average person needs to read, so the following “Summary” section is a quick read which highlights the basics of the article. And the “Details” section contains all the nitty gritty info for those who really want to dive into the topic.
About a year ago (2011) I created a culinary profile page for the Vietnamese catfish called Swai. Even though this fish has been on the top ten list of US seafood purchases for several years, there is still a lot of debate, questions, and miss-information regarding this fish so I’m writing a new article about how to choose quality Swai fish, also called Striped Pangasius.
I’ve researched the topic on the web, discussed it with seafood vendors, and posted the following question in the Seafood Supply Chain group on LinkedIn asking “Is Swai fish safe or is it sewage ridden?” I’ve received a lot of great feedback from various seafood processors/importers from the United States, Europe, and Vietnam. Of course responses were mixed, some saying “oh it’s all great”, others saying the “quality is driven by economics and greed”, and others saying “NOT all Swai is exposed to raw sewage”. So I’ve compiled the best of that information in a way which hopefully allows the chef to choose quality Swai and answer questions from your customers in a knowledgeable manner.
In a nutshell, purchase Swai fillets which are white or light pink, have no added chemicals and minimum to no added water, and are from a reputable company which you trust. The best product is from companies which track the fish from pond to packaging.
Eight things to ask your vendor or processor to ensure quality Swai fish:
- What feed is used?
- What is the water quality of the farms you purchase from? Can you prove it?
- What is the quality/sanitation of the processing plant?
- Most Vietnamese plants have high sanitation & HAACP controls.
- Is polyphosphate or other chemicals used on the fish?
- A lot of seafood from Asia is treated with at least added water, if not more chemicals.
- What color is the flesh… white, pink, or yellow?
- White is best, then light pink… don’t buy yellow.
- Does your company inspect the farms you purchase from? How often?
- Is an ice glaze added into the total shipping weight?
- Average glaze is 2% – 12% water…be sure you’re not paying for it in the net weight.
- Is your company 100% vertically integrated with this product?
“The single most important issue with Vietnamese Swai fish is the water quality. To be sure there is some poor quality Swai out there, just like there is poor quality cod, shrimp, scallops, salmon, or any other seafood. But there’s also a lot of quality product available. Choosing a company which is vertically integrated, meaning it has boots on the ground at every step along the way from testing the quality of the water, to checking the farming ponds or pens, to the processing plant, to the shipping is essential. Purchasing from someone trustworthy is essential.” Ron Calonica
In depth look at the eight things to consider when purchasing quality seafood, whether it be Swai or any other fish. These include: the feed, the water quality, the processor’s sanitation, chemicals & additives, flesh color/texture, inspection authorities, and shipping concerns.
Apparently the only way to verify the type and quality of the feed used for any specific Swai farm is to “have boots on the ground” checking the actual farms or pens. This means that as a chef you need to purchase from a company that is 100% vertically integrated and have people who check the product throughout the whole grow-out process. The reliability of simply asking the farmer is suspect without verification.
The single most important issue with Vietnamese Swai fish (or any other fish for that matter) is the water quality. For fish from the Mekong Delta, its best to either have an independent lab test the quality of the grow-out pond/pen water. Or, even better, purchase from a trustworthy company which tracks the fish from pond/pen to shipping.
Ron Calonica of NorCa lFood Distribution states, “The processing plants are fine, that is not much of an issue, however, the water from the Mekong is nothing to write home about. I believe one of the hardest things to do is get good quality water coming in. That is where I have found most problems to be in Vietnam, their water quality can be problematic, which as you know, is the most important part of aquaculture and processing, good clean water to start with.”
Ron goes on to say, “Not all ponds are equally bad, some are great, however many feed off the Mekong and if that water is not cleaned well before it goes into the grow-out ponds then you are going to have fish that was grown in poor water quality conditions.”
The Processing Plants
In regards to processing of Swai fish which is exported to the US and Europe there is a lot of agreement that the Vietnamese processing plants are equal to, or surpass, the quality of sanitation and HACCP standards in the US. Yes, there are bad processors (just like there are bad ones in the US), but the majority of Swai imported into the US is purchased by major food vendors who will at the very least verify the HACCP and sanitation of the processing plants they are purchasing from. Not only do they do this for “quality” reasons, but also to protect themselves from lawsuits. If the fish they sell makes people sick then they will be held liable, so it is in their best interest to at least verify the quality of the processing plants they purchase from.
Ron Calonica says, “Vietnam does have some great operations that are as good as any in the World. I have been in many countries that have great operations and Vietnam is right there with them. And of course, I have seen some pretty bad operations as well overseas. Some of the worse I have seen are right here at home. There are good and bad operations worldwide, which is why it is important to visit your suppliers frequently”
I learned that much of the product shipped from Asia to the US (not only Swai, but other seafood as well), is high in additional treatments. For instance, water-added scallops have been available for years. Didier Boon, Managing Director at East China Seas Holdings Corp, says, “All factories automatically associate the quality level with the “market”. It is extremely interesting to know that the US market is the second worst after Russia in terms of treatment. This is ONLY because most US clients are only looking at prices….High level of treatment is a standard for most products to the US.” This is unfortunately an indictment of our capitalistic mentality in which we consider price (ie profit) as more important than quality.
It’s estimated that even some of the “good quality” Swai will have about 10% – 15% added water. TRI MINH DUONG is an independent seafood consultant and he provides this info about treatments. “For treated fish fillets, if the treatment is too heavy then the fillets look transparent or slippy. So some packers have started to use non-phosphate chemicals, or a mixture of STPP and non-phosphate chemicals for less transparent, slippy finished fillets. Non-phosphate chemicals (brand names: MTR-79 / MTR-80 / NP-1 / Non-Phos….) consist of mainly Sodium Bicarbonate (E.U.: E500; US FDA: 21 CFR 184.1736), Acid Citric (E.U.: E330; US FDA: 21 CFR 182.1033), Acid Acetic (E.U.: E260; US FDA: 21 CFR 184.1005), Acid Ascorbic (Vitamin C) (E.U.: E300; US FDA: 21 CFR 182.3013).”
Individual packers are not always forthcoming with accurate info about the chemical formula of their treating solutions, about soaking time, or about gain weight. You should check with your vendor and ask what certificates their supplier holds for treatments to their fish fillets. Again, this applies to many fish, not just Swai.
On Flesh Color & Quality
There are three main classifications of Swai fillets by color: white, pink, and yellow. Additional classifications may include light pink or light yellow. Snow white flesh represents the highest quality, closely followed by light pink flesh. Pink fillets are the result of not bleeding the fish, and they represent the second tier of quality. And yellow pangasius fillets are both the cheapest and the lowest quality. These fillets are yellow either from lack of oxygen in the water, or from poor quality water.
Didier Boon says, “If you buy a NON treated Swai / Panga / Basa fillet, it will be a very decent fish fillet, produced in a clean and efficient plant and the product will be analysed and checked quite strictly by authorities before being granted the export stamp. Do not forget that Swai fish arrives LIVE in the factory and the time between arrival and freezing will not be more than 2 hours at most.”
Didier goes on to say, “If the importer applies due diligence, and more importantly if the importer concentrates on a good quality fish, e.g, white or pink and NOT treated, then the Chef WILL have an excellent, versatile product.”
Then he adds, “But I can also guarantee the fact that if your water is perfect, crystal clean, but your fish is treated like most alaskan pollock or injected like salmon, the final product will be lousy.”
Although there are a number of different inspection agencies which oversee the import/export of Swai (and other fish), the general rule of thumb is again, to purchase from a company which is vertically integrated and touches every step of the product’s process from start to finish, from pond to shipping.
Vietnamese farmers can use best practices set by BAP & GAP to help reduce the risk of contamination. But don’t rely upon this certification alone, as farmers can bring their operation up to code for these inspections, and then let things drop below standard until the next inspection is due.
As for FDA inspections for US product imports, only 2% of seafood products coming into the US are inspected, so no one really knows what the other 98% is like.
Be sure that the net shipping weight for which you are charged is the actual weight of the fish and does not include the weight of the ice glaze which can range from 2% – 12%. China & Vietnam are notorious for this illegal practice of overcharging. A glaze of 10% – 12% is recommended by TRI MINH DUONG in order to protect the fillets.
On Vertical Integration
Ron Calonica’s best practice sums it up, “We integrate our own team and equipment on the ground in the country we are working and test every aspect of the fish grow-out cycle. I would never purchase any product without my own QA team at the plant during collection of product, processing and packaging.” For the Chef, this hands on approach by your vendor is what is needed to assure that the fish you are getting is a quality product.
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