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China has cut off some Vietnamese durian imports. Is a ‘gold rush’ tarnishing quality?

The General Administration of Customs told officials in Vietnam in a June 11 letter that it would stop shipments from 18 durian plantations and 15 packers over excessive amounts of “heavy metals” in the fruits.

China had initially deemed 33 plantations and 40 packers “unsuitable” in the letter, which was posted by several Chinese and Vietnamese news outlets. The document said customs officials chose which ones to suspend based on domestic laws, a bilateral agreement and an abiding interest in minimising damage to the durian trade.

“Even though Vietnamese durian growers can benefit from exporting to China, the sudden rise in exports without quality control may harm the prestige of Vietnamese durians in the long term,” said Nguyen Thanh Trung, a political scientist at Fulbright University Vietnam.

Vietnamese growers first received permission to ship durian into China in 2021 and became the country’s second-biggest source of the fruit last year, only trailing Thailand.

China imported 1.4 million tonnes of durian in 2023, and Thailand’s share in US dollar terms dropped from almost 100 per cent in 2021 to about 68 per cent last year.

In the first five months of 2024, Thailand shipped US$2.2 billion worth of durians to China, a year-on-year drop of 2.5 per cent according to Chinese customs data. Vietnam’s exports, meanwhile, surged 61 per cent to a value of US$661.48 million.

The Chinese customs administration urged Vietnamese authorities to learn where the suspended companies had gone wrong, take measures to fix the problems and step up their scrutiny “to prevent related situations from happening again”.

An official from Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, plus two Vietnamese agricultural provinces, issued