As culture turns on dog meat, industry struggles

By Xanh Le   August 18, 2023 | 03:00 pm PT
As culture turns on dog meat, industry struggles
Dogs are bound in sacks before their slaughter. Photo by Reuters
Nguyen Van Tung, a dog meat shop owner in Hanoi’s Long Bien District, is considering whether he should switch to selling another product, or just close his business entirely.

"I used to sell five to six dogs, sometimes seven, every day when I first opened my store," he said. "But now there are days when I can’t even sell one."

Tung said his shop is one of only two dog meat stalls still active in the neighborhood. The other shop’s situation is not much different, and the two owners often speak with each other about how they may have to close their businesses.

Tung said he and his wife had to hire two other employees during his store’s prime time, and the team of four had no time to rest throughout the day as the shop was so consistently busy with customers.

But sales started dropping off about two or three years ago, and the trend continues.

"I have not made any profits since the pandemic hit," he said. "And I have had to use my own money to cover the store’s financial losses."

Tung said he’s been thinking about switching to other offerings like chicken or hotpots, or even returning the store to the landlord and returning to his hometown.

A wave of closures has hit the dog meat community in neighborhoods that used to be known for serving the dish: Le Trong Tan Street in Ha Dong District, Tam Trinh Street in Hoang Mai District, and Tay Ho District’s Nhat Tan Street, just to name a few of the more famous locales.

The Hanoi Department of Animal Health reported in 2018 that the number of dog and cat meat shops in Hanoi had dropped from around 1,100 to around 800 after authorities began encouraging .

"The figure has probably dropped even further since then," said Nguyen Ngoc Son, vice president of the Animal Husbandry Association of Vietnam.

The capital is not the only place turning its back on the once popular pastime of cooking and eating dog.

Alley 189 in HCMC District 1’s Cong Quynh street used to be known as a "dog meat haven," with more than ten sought-after shops selling varieties of the dish in the neighborhood. But the figure has dropped to three as of the moment.

Pham May, who used to work for a shop called "Truong" in the alley, began her own dog meat business around three years ago.

"Customers’ motorbikes used to fill this alley," she said. "But that is not the case anymore, and it’s been so for the past three years. The majority of neighboring businesses had to close due to poor business."

She also told VnExpress the story of the Pham Van Hai market, which used to be a crowded wholesale market for dog meat. But she said the number of customers there can now be "counted on one hand" any given day.

Reporters recently found only two active dog meat shops still selling dog meat in the neighborhood now. The owner of one of them complained about people increasingly shying away from eating dog meat. She said long-time regulars no longer drop by her place to enjoy the food, still considered a healthy and high-protein delicacy, or simple drinking food, by many.

"They say selling and eating dog meat is cruel," she told VnExpress. "My profits dropped, so I don’t want to sell dog meat anymore either, and I will probably switch to selling something else within the next few months."

Now, wandering the neighborhood that was formerly a hot spot for dog eaters, all one sees are mostly coffee shops.

Ngo Van Luc, owner of the stationery shop located opposite a formerly famous dog eatery, said the business shut down around seven years ago because none of the owner’s children wanted to "inherit" their parents’ dog meat legacy.

"I still remember how that shop used to start serving at around 7 a.m. every day and sold everything out by about 10 a.m.," he said. "But the amount of meat they sold gradually decreased overtime, reaching a tenth of what they used to sell before they closured."

Luc used to be a dog eater himself. But he dropped the habit when he saw how slaughterhouses in his neighborhood treated the animals, which he considered unhygienic and cruel. In addition to that, his friends and children encouraged him not to consume the meat anymore as well.

The practice has fallen out of vogue and is now only popular with "old school" dog eaters, whom many now consider behind the times.

"Many times, I saw the slaughterhouses make meat out of sick dogs, which made me afraid that the meat I bought from them was probably from a sick dog too," said Luc. "Also, I learnt the new habit [of not eating dog meat] from my friends and children, who now consider dogs as pets instead of food."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that dog meat is a source of diseases like cholera and rabies, and parasites like echinococcus, which can transfer to those who consume the dish.

Mass media has made dog eaters more aware of this risk and motivated them to change their habit, according to Nguyen Anh Hong, professor at the Academy of Journalism and Communications. This marks one of the four main reasons behind the phenomenon of Vietnamese people turning away from eating the food, she said.

However, pork, poultry and beef are still widely consumed in Vietnam, even after widespread diseases associated with such meats became known.

Hong pointed out three reasons Vietnamese no longer want to eat dog even though they’re happy to eat other mammals: people have grown more determined in choosing healthy and hygienic food sources, people are increasingly considering pets family members instead of products to sell or to eat, and it’s simply trendy to say no to dogs now and more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon.

Tung approved of these explanations.

"I once contacted two of my former frequent customers asking why they had not visited my shop for a long time," he said. "One of them said his health conditions did not allow him to eat dog meat anymore, while the other said his children were against the idea of eating dogs, so he felt ashamed consuming it."

Over 8,000 out of around 18,000 respondents that participated in a recent VnExpress survey reported that they had made the same decision to drop their habit of eating dog meat.

Global "animal welfare" organization Four Paws said in a 2021 report on dog and cat meat consumption in Vietnam that 88% of surveyed Vietnamese supported banning dog and cat meat trafficking.

This data hints at an even more gloomy future for dog meat businesses, which "insiders" have felt coming for some time.

"I really want to quit," the owner of the dog meat shop at Pham Van Hai market said. "This job is disliked by everyone, and I’ve became tired of it. I’m merely getting by with small profits made from selling only a few kilograms of meat per day now."

Tung said the personal cons to the dog meat game now outweighed the pros.

"My children once asked me not to sell dog meat anymore as a result of them being ostracized at school," he said, explaining that his children’s classmates made fun of his job and talked bad about his kids because they considered their dogs beloved pets, not a food source.

"When I heard my kids saying so, I felt sad and did not want to maintain my business anymore."

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