Philippines firm under suspicion of bribery in Vietnam lead poisoning case

By Bui Hong Nhung   June 3, 2016 | 06:46 pm GMT+7

Police have launched an investigation into a soft drinks company after conflicting reports were released regarding excess lead content in its products that prompted accusations it had paid off the National Institute for Food Control.

At the beginning of May, test results of C2 green tea and the Red Dragon energy drink, produced by URC Hanoi, were leaked on Facebook. Some of the results showed excess lead content. 

Shortly afterwards, the National Institute for Food Control published a new set of results saying that the lead content in C2 and Red Dragon was within the permitted limit. This prompted suspicion that a $45,000 bribe was handed to the national institute to fix the test results, forcing the police to launch an investigation on May 12. To date, no official result of the inquiry has been announced.

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C2 green tea and Red Dragon energy drink.

In response to the case, on May 10, both the Vietnam Food Administration and the Ministry of Health's Inspectorate jumped in to collect sample tests of the two drinks. While the former said its samples contained the permitted levels of lead, the latter delivered the opposite result.

It was not until May 20 that the inspectorate decided to suspend the circulation of three batches of C2 and Red Dragon and instructed the company to recall its products. However, two of the batches worth $170,000 had already been sold.

The company itself claimed to had stopped the circulation of two other batches on May 23.

At the end of May, the ministry fined the company VND5.8 billion ($260,000) for selling products with excess lead content, and destroyed 10,000 tons of contaminated drinks.

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Authorities supervise the disposal of C2 and Red Dragon products. 

In a press release published on June 1, URC Philippines, the parent, claimed that only two batches, not five, “marginally exceeded the limits of Vietnam's product safety standards - some of the strictest in the world - versus what was initially reported that these products exceeded those limits by 10 times.” The company's Vietnamese subsidiary has yet to comment.

The question of whether Vietnamese consumers will be compensated or not remains unanswered. Pham Thanh Binh, a lawyer at Bao Ngoc Company, told VnExpress that under Vietnamese Law, the company must compensate customers. However, in reality, it would be very difficult for customers to sue the company as they don’t have any proof and the damage caused by lead in drinks would need to be verified by a doctor.

Associate professor and pedatrician Nguyen Tien Dung said that consumers will show no signs of lead poisoning if they drink C2 and Red Dragon over a short period. However, in the long run, lead content will accumulate in the body and people should seek medical help.

Universal Robina Corporation (URC) is one of the largest food and beverage companies in the Philippines. After launching URC Hanoi in 2003, the company has gradually become one of Vietnam’s leading beverage companies.

This isn’t the first time Vietnamese authorities have fined the company. Last year, URC Hanoi faced a penalty of $12,500 for violating environmental regulations.

 
 
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