by Thu Huong
When the Danlait milk scandal was broken by weary mothers, it barely came as a surprise.
In mid-February, one mother in HaNoi started posting her suspicions about Danlait baby milk in online forums for young parents.
According to her, after drinking Danlait milk for two months, her then-six-month-old baby started losing weight and experiencing slow teething.
The milk was advertised in Viet Nam as a product from one of Europe's top milk companies.
However, when she consulted friends and relatives in France, she found that they had never heard of Danlait milk.
An investigation revealed that the local importer declared the price of each can of Danlait milk to customs officials as about VND80,000 per can. But the milk is sold in Viet Nam for nearly VND450,000 per can.
And while the Food Administration of Viet Nam only certified the product as a supplementary food, it is still marketed and sold as milk for babies.
The incident recalls the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, when melamine was found in milk produced in China – a discovery that also caused great anxiety among domestic consumers.
But this time, consumers have acted more aggressively.
Feeling that authorities will not help them protect their babies, consumers are turning to one another.
Using online forums, they exchange tips on identifying falsely labeled products and report on phone conversations that they have with staff of that local importer for Danlait milk, who fail to respond to the complaints in a satisfactory manner.
The Danlait milk scandal tells us that the authorities are still not doing enough to monitor the quality of imported products and the transparency of local importers.
So far, about 6,000 Danlait cans have been temporarily confiscated for being labeled with inaccurate nutritional information. That's virtually the only action authorities and relevant agencies have taken.
Fortunately, no death or injuries from Danlait milk have been recorded, but that does not make this an insignificant case.
In Viet Nam, milk for babies is required to be at least 34 per cent protein, according to Kieu Dinh Canh from Ha Noi's Market Management Team. Danlait is only 13 – 14 per cent protein, so the mislabeling could affect babies' health.
Nutrition experts have also warned that drinking the milk for a long time could stunt growth.
According to media reports, the local importer called the mislabeling "an accidental error" and claimed to have sent out requests to relevant agencies to clear up the issue so consumers wouldn't boycott its products.
One representative from the importer was even quoted as saying the company was being libeled by rivals.
Officials from the Food Administration, however, said that the certification of Danlait milk followed proper procedure and that the administration was not responsible for checking the products' quality - rather, it was the responsibility of other agencies to conduct post-certification tests.
It's a familiar situation: excuses vs. excuses.
Higher living standards have made Viet Nam a vast market for foreign food suppliers, even though imports are always expensive and many Vietnamese now suffer from the economic downturn.
Economic growth and broader access to the food market, particularly over the past 10 years, have underpinned a major surge in demand for imported food and drinks.
The food service industry was estimated to be worth US$13.3 billion in 2011.
Viet Nam's food and beverage industry is becoming more developed and Westernised; many people, consequently, view Western food products as better.
But parents are still advised to become more educated consumers – particularly when it comes to providing milk to their babies - and take into consideration that domestic products could be a better option.
Compared with the ongoing horse meat scandal in Europe (even if horsemeat is proven not harmful to consumers'health), we feel that this case has not received the attention it should.
When consumers are cheated, it's a problem. It degrades their trust and it makes the country feel simply unsafe. They deserve an apology. —VNS