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Food safety fears mount amid China scandal

Update: May, 16/2013 - 09:31

by Thu Huong Le

The newest food scandal in China, in which rat meat was sold as lamb, hit far too close to home for many Vietnamese consumers.

Every day we have to confront the meat, fruit and vegetables that enter the local markets, laden with disease, toxins, banned dyes and preservatives.

In January, the Chinese government waged a nationwide campaign to attack food safety crimes. According to international media reports, police arrested 904 suspects, closed more than 1,720 factories and confiscated about 20,000 tonnes of fake, toxic or adulterated meat.

But the Chinese Ministry of Public Security acknowledged that consumers still had a multitude of reasons to worry. The crackdown was only the tip of the iceberg. Food crimes have plagued China, leaving many Chinese wondering what is safe to eat.

Here in Viet Nam, we're in the same boat.

In the past few weeks, newspaper headlines have focused heavily on efforts to control smuggled Chinese chickens and chickens of unknown origin.

Smuggling and trading of rejected birds from China was reported in many places, from Ha Vy wholesale market in Ha Noi to the northern mountainous province of Cao Bang.

The number of staff monitoring Ha Vy market reportedly tripled since the Prime Minister's instruction on April 15 spoke out about controlling avian flu. Cameras record events 24 hours a day. All vehicles transporting poultry into the market must present veterinary certificates for the goods they carry.

The efforts were timely, as fears spread about the deadly bird flu strain H7N9, for which there is no vaccine. But efforts in Viet Nam seem to have paid off, as no cases have been recorded in humans or poultry, according to health officials.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade has asked authorities in the seven provinces bordering China to halt the importation of poultry, eggs, poultry breeding stock and poultry-related products. The ministry has also forbidden all types of poultry trade at border gates.

But is this enough?

From April 26 to May 1, Ha Noi police seized six trucks carrying tonnes of smuggled Chinese fish containing preservatives and anesthesia.

In recent weeks, market management authorities in Ha Noi confiscated and destroyed eight tonnes of smuggled fish and frogs from China without veterinary certificates or import paperwork, though the traders were fined only VND40 million (US$2,000).

Market Watch teams said they would increase cooperation with relevant agencies to control unsafe products.

Just as in China, the successful seizures are just the tip of the iceberg.

According to our regulations, every type of imported seafood product must go through testing and meet strict requirements to make sure it doesn't harm local species and is not hazardous to human health.

Nguyen Huy Dien, a senior aquaculture official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, admitted to a local newspaper that the situation, if not dealt with thoroughly, could affect local aquaculture farmers and untested products could affect consumers' health.

Just as we have initially succeeded with controlling smuggled Chinese chicken, we need to implement systematic efforts that crack down on food crimes all the time – not only when global incidents raise fear domestically.

According to lawyer Nguyen Bao Tram of Sai Gon Lawyers, Viet Nam has a series of legal documents on food safety, but they lack clear focus and often overlap.

"We rarely bring criminal proceedings against those who violate food safety rules because prosecuting offices are forced to get hard evidence that violators' acts could ‘damage the lives of consumers,'" she said.

If food producers, growers, traders, smugglers or businesses are found to violate any food safety rule, they should be subject to criminal charges.

Authorities need to increase the number of food inspections and accusations and work harder to uncover major cases.

Other tasks include increasing administrative fines for food safety violations and boycotting unsafe products – which is exactly what consumers are doing.

With consumers becoming increasingly educated, fruit, vegetables and meat from China and other food deemed unsafe are especially vulnerable to consumer backlash. The bottom line, according to that article, is that consumers should educate themselves to look beyond cheap prices.

But in a country where many spend up to 80 per cent of their income on food and some struggle to live on a few dollars a day, this may be easier said than done. — VNS


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