Demand for safe food is rising in Vietnam, and many consumers have become suspicious of goods touted as safe on the local market. This was the focus of a business–consumer connection forum held by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) on Wednesday.
Vietnam seems to be stuck in a circle of trust and moral deterioration between consumers and companies at the moment, and the consequences appear to be a slow erosion in its citizens’ health and a bleak outlook for Vietnamese food industry.
Experts said that lack of trust in food processors and sellers, who have far too often been proved reckless in their pursuit of profits, has left food on the shelves which in turn has made it difficult for them to remain “straight”.
In recent years, it’s become increasingly common to hear about cases of unscrupulous food sellers in Vietnam using banned chemical in meat or excessive concentrations of pesticide in vegetables to increase or maintain the food’s appeal to consumers.
Cong An Nhan Dan (People's Police) newspaper said in a report Wednesday that in 2015, the country recorded 171 food poisoning cases with nearly 5,000 people affected. Each day, people in Hanoi consume about 1,000 tons of meat, 600 tons of fish and 3,200 tons of vegetables, but only a handful is clean or has been proven place of origin, said experts at the forum.
For some, the situation is even grimmer than it looks. “I don’t believe there are clean vegetables (in the market) anymore, because Vietnam imports 4,100 types of pesticides and 1,643 different chemical ingredients, 90 percent of which come from China," the report quoted Nguyen Lan Dung, chairman of the Vietnam Biotechnology Association, as saying ."It’s impossible to control how our farmers use them,” .
According to the report, in a recent inspection conducted by the National Institute for Food Control (NIFC), 40/120 vegetable samples were found to have excessive levels of chemical pesticides, and 455/735 samples of meat products were unsafe for consumption. The unethical practice of mixing “dirty” food with safe produce to sell at a higher price is common in the market, even in supermarkets and other places that naturally enjoy higher consumer confidence.
While these cases are not common, the government's ineffective response to tighten food safety control has further eroded consumer trust.
The terrifying fact about these unethical practices is that the damage caused by unsafe products does not usually come to light immediately. According to Prof. Hoang Dinh Chau, director of the Hung Viet Cancer Hospital, each year Vietnam has 150,000 new cancer patients, and 75,000 people die from cancer annually. It is estimated that about 35 percent get cancer from consuming “dirty” food, topping the 30 percent of lung cancer patients who contract the disease from smoking.
Chau said chemicals used in livestock feed and plant protection products such as preservatives and pesticides are the main causes of cancer and other illnesses in the country.
Remaining issues that gain attention
With pressure mounting to strengthen food safety measures, the Vietnamese government has been urged to put food safety higher on national agenda and to issue policies that are strong enough to encourage the production and supply of safe food.
Tran Quan, director of a chain of seafood stores called Soi Bien (Sea Wolf), said that the MARD has yet to issue standards for organic agricultural products, forcing him and other businesses to search elsewhere overseas for applicable standards.
Quan also added that overlaps in food safety management have frustrated many in the industry. “There are inspection teams from the health and agricultural sectors. Then there are teams from the ward, district and even inter-agency teams from a municipal level. Why can't these teams share their test results to save costs and cut the onerous red tape?” said the director.
Blaming Vietnam’s poor market discipline and questioning the government's protection of consumers, Chairman of the Hanoi Supermarkets Association Vu Vinh Phu’s opinion has received from other experts. “We aren't able to distinguish between an honest business and an unscrupulous one… And don’t ask the consumers to wise up; the authorities must actively protect them,” Phu said.
On the other hand, Le Tu, director of Hong Thanh Viet – a catering business in the southern city of Vung Tau – revealed that even food safety certificates such as VietGap – the Vietnamese good agricultural practice standard – have a price tag, adding a challenge that the government and consumers have to confront .
“Someone even offered to sell me a VietGap certification,” Tu told Cong An Nhan Dan. "If it's that easy to buy, then what can the consumers believe in nowadays?”
Vietnam has seen numerous problems related to food safety in recent years, mostly resulting from imports of food preservatives from China.
Taiwan's Formosa Plastics Group, which owns Formosa Plastics, was ordered to pay a $500 million fine for discharging toxic waste from its steel plant in the central province of Ha Tinh in April, killing large numbers of fish. The incident could have resulted in a serious health hazard.
Under new food safety laws revised in July, the maximum punishment for food poisoning and other violations in Vietnam was raised from five to 20 years' imprisonment. Fines were also increased tenfold to VND500 million ($22,425).