|Tomatoes sold at Ha Noi's Long Bien market. Consumers are on high alert for sub-standard goods imported to help meet increased demand during the Tet (Lunar New Year) festival.—VNA/VNS Photo Tuan Anh
by To Nhu
HA NOI (VNS)— With the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday fast approaching and the demand for goods expected to skyrocket, Vietnamese officials and consumers are becoming increasingly wary of imported agricultural goods, particularly those from neighbouring China.
With consumption to match last year's growth of between 30 to 50 per cent on top of typical routine consumption, consumers on high alert for sub-standard goods imported from China to help meet holiday demand.
Officials are particularly concerned by trends in provinces bordering China, where goods are transported to wholesalers and repackaged to disguise their origins.
Nguyen Thanh Phuong, resident of Ha Noi's Nguyen Phong Sac Street and now a retired agricultural trader, said he now feels free to talk about the distribution of sub-par imports.
"Low quality agriculture products from China are often sold to Vietnamese enterprises. Once these goods are imported to Viet Nam, enterprises will use tricks to make them look good and sell them to local consumers in the retail markets," Phuong said.
Phuong said everyday hundreds of tonnes of products are imported into bordering provinces, and alleges thatproper control of these products is "impossible", he said.
Officials from the National Agro-Forestry-Fishery Quality Assurance Department under MARD, said Viet Nam imported around 689,000 tonnes of produce, with more than 90 products of plant origins.
Nguyen Xuan Hong, director of the ministry's Plant Protection Department, said the ministry's inspection discovered eight out of 98 vegetables and fruits samples had been imported from China and contained high levels of pesticides, well above the permitted limit. The tested samples included tangerines, radishes and carrots.
The discovery also followed earlier inspections finding food safety violations in samples of Chinese apples and persimmons.
Representatives from northern border Lang Son Province responded to the claims in a recent meeting hosted by MARD at the end of last year, affirming the volume of Chinese fruit and vegetables imported to the province's Tan Thanh Port was increasing considerably.
They also said the port received between 200 and 300 tonnes of agriculture produce, with fruit comprising the vast majority of the imports.
Nguyen Thi Ha, head of the Plant Quarantine Unit of Zone VII, said the low tax rate imposed on unprocessed agricultural products was facilitating the import of Chinese goods to Viet Nam.
Since 2008, the tax has remained at zero per cent for products, including fresh fruits.
Hoang Anh Tho, resident of Ha Noi, says although she is unsure what methods are used to keep the imported goods fresh, she suspects they must be harmful.
"I used to mistakenly buy imported Chinese apples or tomatoes, which didn't go rotten for two weeks even though I leave them out of the fridge. I would refuse to eat them. What would happen to my family if we all ate them?" she said.
Tho is now part of an increasing body of consumers wanting to avoid imported Chinese produce for this reason – safety. But she maintains it is difficult for customers to distinguish home-grown produce from those imported from China.
"China now can grow almost everything that Viet Nam can, and their products are even more prevalent in our market. It scares me because I don't know what techniques they use to make their vegetables and fruits look more appealing," she said.
According to Nguyen Van Son, deputy director of Central Highlands Lam Dong Province's Agriculture Department, the department has discovered many cases where traders misrepresent the origins of agriculture products.
In one example, he said some traders used a layer of red soil taken from Da Lat City to cover imported Chinese potatoes to make them resemble potatoes grown in Da Lat. The potatoes were then transported to big wholesales markets in the southern area.
"Traders even bought machines to do this faster. Now they can make between 150 to 200kg of ‘fake potatoes' in one hour," he said.
Although no official cases of food poisoning from imported Chinese agriculture products have emerged, experts say chemical products used on imported goods can inflict gradual harm on the body.
"People eating low quality vegetables or fruits will not see the effects right away but gradually the chemicals stay in the body and cause health problems in the future," said Nguyen Manh Hung, Vice President of the Viet Nam Standards and Consumer Rights Protection Association.
Meanwhile, consumers like Tho are adamant that relevant authorities have an important role in helping to give consumers peace of mind.
Nguyen Xuan Hong, director of MARD's Plant Protection Department, said quarantine measures were being applied to imported goods in border provinces, but said the status quo had been ineffective.
"The quick quarantine test kit can only discover up to 30 per cent of active elements in pesticides, so the quarantine unit at bordering provinces still have to send the samples to Ha Noi for more accurate tests," he said, adding that the procedure took between seven to ten days.
This delay in product testing meant quarantine units relied on examining product documents and often samples were not taken for testing, he said. Further problems also arose after the examination, with enterprises using artificial plant agents before goods were distributed to localities.
"At this phase, products quality is beyond our management abilities," Hong said.
Agriculture minister, Cao Duc Phat, said he was concerned about the poor management of imported agricultural produce, in a recent meeting with industry representatives.
"There has been no change in the management of food safety and hygiene. That means the sector's relevant authorities have not been working effectively," he said.
Responding to the claims, Deputy Minister Nguyen Thi Xuan Thu said tougher measures were needed to address the concerns of authorities and consumers.
"We have to tackle the problem aggressively. We can't let a group of people cause harm to millions of other people," she said.
For now, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) has announced it will co-operate with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Industry and Trade to conduct wide-ranging inspections of agriculture products, nationwide. Stricter quarantine processes will also be used to test imported agriculture produce.
While time will tell whether these aggressive measures will prove effective, Tho is determined to protect her family by buying seasonal goods and those from small-scale Vietnamese farms nearby.—VNS