Vietnam gov’t orders heavier punishment for agency behind false toxic fish sauce survey

By Anh Minh   July 5, 2017 | 12:07 pm GMT+7
Vietnam gov’t orders heavier punishment for agency behind false toxic fish sauce survey
The survey had caused widespread scare in a country that consumers around 200 million liters of fish sauce annually. Photo by VnExpress/Trinh Quang Minh

The consumer group was fined just $660 and its chairman got a ticking off over a scandal that caused widespread panic.

Vietnam’s Government Office has ordered the trade ministry to review the punishment handed down to a consumer group behind a survey that falsely reported toxic arsenic levels in local fish sauce last year, saying that just rebuking its top official was “not strict enough”.

The Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association (Vinastas) last October released a survey that claimed nearly 70 percent of the 150 samples of traditional fish sauce tested on the domestic market had excess levels of arsenic.

The announcement ignited a widespread food scare and affected many producers in a country that uses fish sauce as an essential condiment and consumes around 200 million liters of the product each year.

The Vietnamese government was quick to dismiss the survey, saying it was misleading because it failed to differentiate between highly toxic inorganic arsenic, and the less dangerous organic variety found commonly in seafood.

Two months ago, the trade ministry said it had fined the group VND15 million ($660) and reprimanded its chairman, Doan Phuong. Vietnam has four levels of punishment for misconduct by an official: reprimand, warning, demotion and expulsion.

In a recent cabinet statement, Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh said the ministry had not gone far enough because Vinastas had caused “serious consequences” with its false fish sauce report.

He said the ministry should impose a punishment that the violation deserves.

Vinatas issued an apology following the incident and fired its deputy general secretary, Vuong Ngoc Tuan, who was in charge of releasing the survey.

The survey itself was sponsored by the Hanoi-based communications and advertising firm T&A Ogilvy, a member of global advertising group Ogilvy and Mather.

Local media outlets were also caught up in the scandal. As many as 50 news organizations were fined for carrying the findings and sparking public panic, and two editors of a major newspaper had their press cards revoked.

Annual fish sauce sales in Vietnam are worth VND7.2-7.5 trillion ($320-330 million), according to government statistics.

No legal complaints have been lodged regarding the survey.