Safety scares spark safe food revolution
|A healthy hit: Organic foods are sold at Metro Supermarket, Hoang Mai District. Farmers have grown organic vegetables on an area of 3000 ha to supply for groceries and supermarkets around the city. — VNA/VNS Photo Bui Tuong
|Meaty market: Sai Gon Agriculture Co. has open its 20th store under the same logo, "Safe food for everyone", at No. 499, Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, District 10. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoang Hai.
|Appetising prospect: Long Bien market, a typical wholesale site, visitors can see fruits and vegetables imported from China everywhere. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Following a raft of media reports on hazardous foods, particularly pesticide laden imported fruits, more and more Vietnamese are seeking safe sources of food for their growing families. Cam Giang
One year ago, Nguyen Thi Chi, a 32-year-old public employee, became a familiar visitor to "Bac Tom" Store, a place on Ly Thai To Street that claims to provide only safe foods. Chi says that although she could easily buy pork at the street market near her house, she prefers to pay 20,000 more to have meat delivered from the safe food store, particularly on busy days.
"That is when you really care," the mother of two says.
Safe food is now in increasing demand. During the last nine months, a series of food safety and hygiene violations have been exposed by domestic media, ranging from rotten pork and antibiotic-laden fish to imported fruits with excessive pesticide residues and preservatives. More and more people, particularly pregnant and lactating women, are searching for alternative food sources besides street markets. Safe food products have become more and more available, sold everywhere from supermarkets to new pop-up private stores.
"I only buy safe food products. Although the price of everything here is higher, I care enough about the quality of my family's meals to pay a little extra," says Vuong Thi Chung, a 30-year-old employee at Vietinbank. She is a regular customer at an organic food store on Han Thuyen Street.
Dang Nghia Nam, owner of the shop, reveals that last year he sold children's clothing, but decided to change his business once he heard of the new trend.
"I had sold made-in-Viet Nam clothes for years, and I started selling organic foods only one month ago, but I already have regular visitors. Most of them are white-collar workers who work in the buildings around here," he says.
Although Nam's store is across the street from a "frog" market, which offers similar foods at cheaper prices, he is not afraid his customers will cross the street to find a better deal.
"Occasionally I see people pick up our goods and examine them carefully, then leave for the market across the street, but they are not the majority. Those who purchase my products once not only come back but also bring more people in, because they realise how different organic food is when cooked. Organic vegetables are crisper and more flavourful, while my pork is fresher and more delicious," he says.
Ngo Tuong Vi, who established the website www.organic.vn, opened her fourth organic food store at Trung Hoa-Nhan Chinh four days ago. When Vi opened her first store by the end of 2011, she soon realised it was difficult to sell a whole pig in one store. To sell all her pork while still fresh, she opened the other three, one by one - all in only a year. Vi says the business has a lot of potential, as her customers come from different backgrounds.
"It doesn't appear that rich people are our most frequent visitors. I know those who have billions of dong, but still don't buy safe foods, because they argue eating ‘dirty' won't make them die immediately. Among my regular customers are often doctors, teachers, and even egg sellers. They share the same concern for their health," Vi says.
Vice President cum General Secretary of Viet Nam Standards and Consumers Association (VINASTAS), Nguyen Manh Hung, confirms this statement: "A great number of consumers today say that safe vegetables are their first priority in their daily meals, and most are willing to buy vegetables at a price 10-20 or even 50 per cent higher than normal if they are safer."
More than 1,000 food poisoning cases occurred nation-wide from 2004 to 2009, killing 298 people, according to the Ministry of Health. Last year, 142 cases occurred nationwide, causing 25 deaths and leaving more than 3,560 people hospitalised. The ministry said the number of poisoning cases involving chemical substances was increasing rapidly and had become more difficult to control.
Following the trend, Nguyen Thi Loan, mother to a one-year-old boy, says she has often bought safe vegetables and other foods at the supermarket since she was warned by the media, but she still sometimes questions how safe they could be.
"Buying food at the supermarket is more for my psychological well-being than anything else. All I can do is trust my eyes and my experience. There is no official certification that says these foods are completely safe," she says.
|Spraying it safe: The income of many households in Quynh Luong Commune is around 100 million dong a year thanks to the growing demand for organic vegetables. — Photo VNA/VNS
Even Vi, the owner of four organic-food stores, confirms that it's impossible to know where some foods come from. For organic vegetables, she can provide buyers with certifications, but it's impossible to clarify where "safe pork" comes from because meat has no similar documentation.
"Vegetables are always obtained from organic vegetable projects sponsored by foreign organisations, but we have to source pigs from small farming households. They raise only one or two pigs at a time. We know the pork is safe, but we can't obtain official certification," Vi says, adding that every store is in the same situation.
Since many businesses that strictly comply with food-safety regulations have not been identified by city authorities, consumers must accept the risk, Vi says. But many stores take advantage of the situation to mix safe foods with unquarantined imports from China. That's why there are still customers who avoid being cheated by continuing to visit street markets. At least, there is one thing they are sure about: the price is cheaper.
Wandering around Long Bien market, a typical wholesale site, visitors can see fruits and vegetables imported from China everywhere, while sellers boldly tell every customer their origin. "They are from China. You want to buy or not?" They ask. Retail sellers still come here to select products and relabel them in various ways.
"I love apples but am afraid of chemical residue, so I often order those grown in the USA from a store nearby my house. When I read in the newspaper that they are actually unquarantined imports from China, I was really frightened," says Le Huong, a Manulife Company employee.
Once customers discovered this fact, many of them refused to buy high-priced foods. Huong is a case in point: she doesn't spend money buying "safe" foods, as she doesn't believe in them.
"Now I trust my intuition more. For example, I prefer small fruits with plain appearances than those that are big and beautiful, as they might contain fewer pesticides. I also buy vegetables that have thick skins and have to be cooked before you can eat them. In general, though, I have to accept the fact that I can't completely avoid unsafe products," she says.
Tran Cong Thang, director of Strategic Policy Department under the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture (IPSARD), says the demand of Hanoians for safe vegetables has reached 15,000 tonnes a day, and climbs even higher during holidays and festivals. However, the current supply meets only 14 per cent of the demand. Ironically, safe vegetables are unsellable in many cases.
Nguyen Duc, director of Van Duc Cooperatove in Gia Lam Province, says that his farm grows safe vegetables on 250ha and provides 50 to 70 tonnes of vegetables to domestic markets everyday.
"The products all meet the VietGap standards. However, since the amount is huge, and there is not a stable output, only a large part of them are given Safe Vegetable stamps to be sold at big shops, while the rest are sold to street markets for the same price as other vegetables. That's why we earn little profit," he says, suggesting that there should be a wholesale market like Long Bien that offers only safe vegetables to vendors instead of imported products.
Although there are a lot of difficulties for farmers, sellers and customers of safe food products, the media is keeping people more alert about what they buy for daily meals.
Vi says each of her four stores gets hundreds of visitors a day, which could earn her VND7-25 millions daily.
"I still have to subsidise millions of dong a day for my stores. We are a one-year-old business and it's an investment. I believe in the statement of Alan Phan*, ‘Safe foods and software are the two fields with the most potential in Viet Nam, and pioneers would get fruitful results,'" Vi says. VNS
*Dr. Alan Phan was the first Vietnamese-American to list a private company on the US stock exchange in 1987. The Hartcourt Group was valued at US$670 million in 1999 and subsequently spun off into 5 companies which are still listed. Dr. Phan was also the first to introduce online stock trading and distance learning to China in 1997. Previously, he worked for many multi-national and investment banking firms on Wall Street. He is now Chairman of Viasa Fund (a private family fund) and a consultant on emerging markets for some multi-nationals. — VNS