Untainted food is a public right
by Thu Phuong
As a working house-wife, I am nervous every time I go shopping for meat and vegetables for my family of four. Chickens and ducks may contain bird flu. Pork is often reported to contain chemicals to make it leaner. Fish and prawns raised in ponds are often tainted with fertilisers. And vegetables from many areas contain excessive amounts of chemical residues.
Food safety in Viet Nam is a major daily concern for millions of shoppers. The reports and rumours are often so scary as chemicals and residues from war and industrialisation move through the food chain.
Recently, the public was shocked to learn that tonnes of "lean meat powder", an illegal and harmful chemical substance used to stimulate muscle growth in pigs, were on sale in some stores in the southern province of Dong Nai. Experts say that the substances, including clenbuterol, a feed additive that can cause a number of side effects, including heart palpitations, muscle tremors, nervousness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills and, in rare cases, death.
A follow-up test by the agriculture ministry revealed that 43 per cent of pig urine and 24 per cent of pork samples from slaughterhouses in some southern provinces were tainted with forbidden substances. The agriculture minister described it as "a crime".
The local media thankfully exposed the situation, suggesting it may just be the "tip of the iceberg". Every bite of food - or even a drink of water - can provoke health doubts.
What concerns customers is that no serious action has ever been taken to push the matter to the bitter end. Violators can be fined heavily, but this does not deter them because profits are so high. According to Article 15 of Government Decree 08 dated January 2011, those producing, trading or using forbidden substances to produce food can be fined between VND1-40 million (US$47-1,900) - and lose their licences for six-months. Under the Criminal Code, dealers and users can be jailed from three to five years.
For more than a year, Viet Nam has had a food safety law. It also runs the Food Safety Administration, an agency set up under the health ministry to oversee food-related matters nation-wide. Yet, we still keep reading stories about food safety scandals but rarely hear what has been done to catch the perpetrators.
Apparently, there's little enforcement of the rules. Let's take a look at a similar story exposed in China last March. Penalties ranging from probation and jail to a death sentence (reprieved) were given to about 130 people, including producers of the chemical clenbuterol, pig farmers, dealers and government employees.
What we learn from this is not only how China handled the situation, but that responsible bodies in Viet Nam should have known that the chemical, if produced in China, was being used locally. Most powder packages found in Dong Nai later are printed in Chinese. Where were the market-watch officers a year ago? Constant supervision and warnings might help farmers resist sweet invitations from dealers.
My assumption is that authorised bodies empowered to oversee the issue on behalf of the Government would have made the same old excuse: a shortage of inspectors.
To try and ease public panic, one official said that not all pork on the market was tainted. But how can the ordinary customer know which food is healthy? Another ploy is to advise the public to be smarter when they buy. In other words, have a guess which food is tainted and which is not.
Well, the smartest thing might be not to buy anything at street and public markets and head for well checked products in supermarkets. Why should it be the consumer's duty to establish the purity of food? This is the job of government officials, farmers and wholesalers.
As a last resort, maybe it's best to boycott suspicious products. This will quickly force shonky operators back into line. Without an overhaul of food safety supervision, housewives like me will face the prospect of not buying local food or being slow poisoned by tainted food. — VNS