VietNamNet Bridge – Nguyen Thi Tinh, ignoring the taboo in the fish sauce village, showed off her new fish barrels, where anchovies were being salted to create a kind of genuine fish sauce which Tinh would register to obtain the geographical indication certificate on Phu Quoc fish sauce trademark.
Geographical indication – the solution for Phu Quoc fish sauce
Pointing to the fish barrel from which the drops of extraction of fish sauce were leaking, Tinh said that this was one of the 10 fish sauce barrels she has registered for the geographical indication certificates. The 10 fish sauce barrels are 1/8 of the total barrels that Tinh’s Thanh Quoc Company was making.
Not only Thanh Quoc, but many other big workshops like Khai Hoan and Hung Thinh in Phu Quoc district were taking hectic preparations to launch the bottles of Phu Quoc fish sauce with geographical indications.
The trademark registration and protection for geographical indication in both Vietnam and the world market has finished with the support of the EC through the Multrap 3 project. However, genuine Phu Quoc fish sauce products with geographical indications still have not been marketed for some reasons.
The fish sauce makers in Phu Quoc well understand that the geographical indication would be the only way to protect Phu Quoc fish sauce and regain its position on the market. This would not only help preserve and develop the fish sauce making career descended by the ancestors, but also help keep the national spirit and the “culinary elite” of Vietnamese cuisine.
The predestined tie between Vietnamese fish sauce and western wine
According to Ly Van Nhan, Deputy Chair of the Phu Quoc fish sauce management board, the project on developing the brand with geographical indication has been sponsored by a French famous liquor group, which has also given technical assistance.
After two years of working with the support of French experts, in 2010, the regulations on the control over Phu Quoc geographical indication for fish sauce product was completed and recognized in both Vietnam and in the world.
In September 2010, the Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Management Board was established, which is in charge of verifying the quality of fish sauce and granting the geographical indication stamps to the products which can satisfy the standards.
The Phu Quoc village has become more bustling, and fish sauce workshops have been hurrying with their production plans.
The workshops now follow very strict production process. All the salting fish barrels are given codes which bear the strict control by the members of the management board. All the details about the production phases, materials and technique are recorded and put under a strict control.
Every bottle of genuine Phu Quoc fish sauce with the geographical indication labels will have its code which allows consumers to trace down the origin of products. Especially, it can point out which barrels the fish sauce comes from.
The last obstacle
According to Tinh, she has to gather all of the company’s strength to set up a big fishing ship with all necessary equipments, so that it can catch fish with tuna nets and to ensure the traditional fish marination process which has been applied for the last many generations.
Meanwhile, Khai Hoan, which does not have fishing boat, has bought a 250 ton ship to collect materials to ensure that it can collect fresh fish and the fish salted in accordance with the procedures set up by the company.
One of the reasons which makes Phu Quoc fish sauce with geographical indication labels still not being available on the market–is the requirement on the histamine content which must be below 200 mg per liter.
The problem is that the anchovy sources on the Phu Quoc sea area are getting exhausted. As the nearby fishing grounds do not have enough fish. People now have to go further to catch fish, which makes it difficult to keep fish fresh.
Therefore, Tinh said protecting the traditional anchovy fishing grounds is the thing that needs to be done immediately.
VietNamNet Bridge – Real Phu Quoc fish sauce products have gradually disappeared from the market, and even from its homeland. They have been retailed only to travelers, who still love the traditional product.
The once well-known fish sauce brands such as Thanh Quoc, Hong Dai and Khai Hoan still exist. However, most of the products put out by the workshops are now selling to the manufacturers who then process the fish sauce into different products and launch into the market as “high grade fish sauce.”
The owners of the workshops still have been trying to maintain the traditional career and keep the soul of the Phu Quoc fish sauce by making the bottles of real Phu Quoc fish sauce – the drops of fish sauce extracted from anchovies and salt kept in wooden barrels for many months – and retailing to the travelers to Phu Quoc.
A lot of travelers visit Khai Hoan, known as the biggest fish sauce enterprise in Phu Quoc and buy real fish sauce products to give relatives as gifts.
However, Ho Kim Lien, Director of Khai Hoan Company, admitted that not many people are interested in Phu Quoc fish sauce any more.
“Some travelers from the south say Phu Quoc fish sauce is salty, and they would rather buy Chinsu or Nam Ngu brand fish sauce products at supermarkets than the real traditional fish sauce in Phu Quoc,” Lien said.
The director has also admitted that despite the great efforts of the company to run marketing campaigns, her fish sauce products, like other Phu Quoc fish sauce brands, still cannot squeeze into big supermarkets in HCM City and other big urban areas.
Therefore, Lien said, she plans to march towards the northern market, the area from Quang Binh province to Hanoi, where consumers have a different taste with the southern people and do not like sugared products.
Tinh from the Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Association agrees with Lien, saying that fish sauce needs to be salty, simply because the fish sauce products with the salinity of less than 25 percent would get spoiled just after a short time of preservation.
Tinh believes that the sauce products with the salinity below 25 percent would be able in good conditions only if producers use preservatives.
Tinh emphasized that it is the salinity which ensures that real Phu Quoc fish sauce does not contain toxic bacteria.
“It is the salinity which kills all bacteria. No bacteria have been found so far in Phu Quoc fish sauce,” Tinh said.
“Other manufacturers advertise that their fish sauce products are “clean.” However, consumers should be informed that there has been no dirty Phu Quoc fish sauce since the day Phu Quoc fish sauce appeared on the market,” she added.
Deputy Chair of Phu Quoc district People’s Committee Huynh Quang Hung sadly said that consumers are being cheated. The products introduced as fish sauce are the ones made up from original fish sauce plus a lot of aromatic flavorings.
Also according to Hung, a bottle of genuine Phu Quoc fish sauce with 300 degrees of protein is just a bit more expensive than a bottle of processed sauce with just 100 degrees of protein. Meanwhile, fish sauce producers well understand that there exists a big gap in the quality of the two types of products.
“In general, the protein content is always written down in small letters on the packs of the bottles of fish sauce, which cannot give sufficient information to consumers,” Hung said.
VietNamNet Bridge – Phu Quoc fish sauce, which is considered the “national spirit and characteristic,” may disappear forever one day, since Phu Quoc fish sauce makers have turned their backs to the career descended by their ancestors
Fewer fish sauce makers
The years from 2005 to 2010 were considered the hot development period of Phu Quoc fish sauce, when the number of fish sauce makers increased rapidly. However, the golden age is over with the number of fish sauce makers decreasing dramatically.
According to the Phu Quoc island People’s Committee, there are 120 fish sauce workshops in the district. However, the figure is believed to be “out of date.” The number of the Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Association’s members has dropped from 91 in 2010 to 86, according to the association’s chair Nguyen Thi Tinh. In 2010, when the association was set up, there were 63 members.
Nguyen Minh Truc, Head of the Phu Quoc district’s Economics Sub-department, said that there has been no more fish sauce workshop.
“Making fish sauce now cannot bring profits to Phu Quoc’s people any more. Therefore, a lot of families have turned their back to the traditional career,” Truc said. “I have heard that the chair of the association is considering doing business in the tourism sector.”
Small scaled workshops with 10-30 fish sauce barrels prove to be the first ones who suffered from the cutthroat competition with big enterprises. About 50 percent of the workshops are the members of the Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Association.
The supply of anchovy, which is the main material to make fish sauce, has become depleted, while the demand for materials has been increasing rapidly. Small workshops, therefore, cannot compete with bigger ones in collecting materials.
However, in fact, even big workshops have also been facing big difficulties because of the economic downturn, the high bank loan interest rates, and especially because they cannot compete with the big guys who are making sauces in different kinds right on their homeland.
Counterfeit fish sauce gradually replaces real fish sauce
When asked about where Phu Quoc fish sauce products have been selling, Tinh said that about 60-70 percent of Phu Quoc fish sauce products have been sold to the companies which would process different kinds of sauces now dominating the market.
However, later, at the end of the meeting with reporters, Tinh said that over 90 percent of fish sauce made in Phu Quoc district has been “reincarnated” as non-Phu Quoc sauce products. These products are introduced as “high quality fish sauce” and given dainty names, but in fact, they are not real fish sauce.
Truong Hong Huong, Director of Hong Dai Company, complained that the real fish sauce makers like him now do not have the power to decide the input cost and the outlet of products.
The input material costs have been increasing continuously, because fishermen now have to go out to the open sea to catch anchovies. Meanwhile, they cannot raise the sale prices of fish sauce products, because their products have to compete fiercely with the products introduced as fish sauce, but are not made in accordance with the standard production process applied to make traditional fish sauce.
Analysts have also said that the counterfeit fish sauce products should be called “nuoc cham” (sauce) instead of “nuoc mam” (fish sauce).
In Phu Quoc, most of the fish sauce workshops now have to sell their fish sauce to Masan Group through Hong Ngoc Company. The enterprise has ships that carry Phu Quoc fish sauce to HCM City.