HANOI: Vietnam’s poultry sector is expected to be one of the hardest hit by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) when the free trade deal falls into place.
Experts say Vietnamese chicken, long crippled by low technology and high production costs, will not be able to compete with chicken imports from the world’s top producers. However, others say that taste may be more important than price.
In Hanoi, chicken pho is not authentic unless it is made with local free-range chicken, or ga ta in Vietnamese. Almost double the price of factory chicken, ga ta’s competitive advantage is product differentiation.
“Vietnamese free-range chicken has a plumpness and shine to it,” said celebrity chef Nguyen Phuong Hai. “The meat isn’t too tough nor too soft, and the skin is crunchy, not fatty. But industrial chicken is different, the meat is too soft, the thigh is dry and falls apart.”
Celebrity chef Nguyen Phuong Hai says chicken pho is not authentic unless it is made with local free-range chicken, or ga ta in Vietnamese. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
Optimists are banking on Vietnam’s love of ga ta to defend domestic producers against the free trade winds of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal promises zero import tariffs, which could open Vietnam’s chicken market even further to the world’s most competitive producers.
“The majority of Vietnamese consumers still prefer ga ta. So by developing domestic poultry in a way that focuses on free-range, we’ll be able to compete at least in the local market,” said Hoang Thanh Van, director of livestock production at the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development.
Ga ta meat is not too tough, not too soft, its skin is crunchy, not fatty, says Celebrity chef Nguyen Phuong Hai. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
Mr Van says some Asian investors have even come knocking to explore the export potential of Vietnam’s free-range poultry.
“I expect our free-range chicken will be exported to some countries in the future. Ga ta is one of the biggest advantages of our poultry sector," he said.
RESPONSE NOT ALL POSITIVE
This optimism is not evident elsewhere. Household farmers like Nguyen Ngoc Anh, who produce the majority of Vietnam’s free-range chicken, have been hard hit by falling prices this year. Their live birds are selling for 30 per cent less than they were 6 months ago.
One reason is growing local supply, with stiff competition. Ten to 15 years ago, when Mr Ngoc Anh first started rearing chickens, he was only one of a handful of farmers in his village. Today, six out of 10 households there are rearing free-range chickens for sale in Vietnam’s largest northern market, Hanoi.
Mr Ngoc Anh's live birds are selling for 30 per cent less than they were six months ago. (Photo: Tan Qiuyi)
The TPP could help bring down a key production cost – chicken feed - which in Vietnam is dependent on imported grain. But farmers are wary about ga ta’s prospects in the global marketplace.
“Vietnam is not strong at promoting its products abroad,” said Mr Ngoc Anh. “If we want to sell overseas, there must be some agency to take care of quality control. When Vietnam joins the TPP, that’s my biggest concern.”
The Vietnamese are proud of their free-range chicken. But when the TPP throws the country’s doors wide open to inexpensive meat, there is no guarantee consumers will not bite, or that their tastes will never change.