Viet Nam News
HÀ NỘI — When the drum beat signals the end of the school day, groups of students from Lương Yên primary school in Hà Nội’s Hai Bà Trưng District flock towards the school gate, then head to nearby food stalls.
Colourful packages of snacks, dried beef, candies and jelly sold near schools are popular choices. Many young students spend their pocket money on fried fish balls and sausages cooked by street vendors, homemade ice cream or cotton candy.
On the other side of the school gate, a group of students line up for their favorite drinks made from colourful mystery powders stored in plastic bottles.
It’s a familiar scene outside schools in many cities, but that doesn’t necessarily make it safe.
Contaminated food at restaurants and markets nationwide has recently raised a strong wave of opposition from consumers. Children are also exposed to high risks from food stalls surrounding schools before and after class. No one has vouched for the stalls’ quality, but the prices are so cheap that children find it difficult to resist the snacks.
Holding a package of so-called “Ka Ka tiger” in his hands, Nguyễn Minh Trí, a grade three student from Lương Yên School, said, “The ‘tiger meat’ tastes as tough as beef, but it is much cheaper than beef. We like the tiger picture on the package’s cover so we buy it.”
It is actually a kind of dried beef sold at VNĐ3,000 (13 US cents) to VNĐ5,000 (22 US cents) per package. The package indicates the snack expires after 10 months, but it does not say when it was processed. Sometimes the expiration date is too blurry to determine whether the products are still safe to eat.
A food seller at Tô Hoàng Primary School’s gate said that most of the sellers there buy junk food wholesale from Đồng Xuân Market. The products they often choose are the ones with eye-catching images and cheap prices.
Đỗ Hương, a mother of two sons in Hoàng Mai District, said, “My children sometimes ask me to buy this kind of dried beef to try because of its nice taste as suggested by their friends. I gave them the money to buy it and neglected to check its quality. However, now I am really worried about it.”
Vũ Thị Thuần, a mother of a secondary student, said, “I ban my son from buying it, but sometimes after class he still sneakily buys it using money given to him for breakfast. Sometimes he gets the food from his friends.
“Sometimes, he brings home cartoon character stickers that media have warned about for their dangers (and toxic chemicals),” Thuần said, adding that children cannot distinguish between which food or toys are safe.
According to Associate Professor Nguyễn Duy Thịnh from the School of Biotechnology and Food Technology under the University of Science and Technology, students will face high risks of cancer if they continue to consume this food frequently.
He said these products are mainly fried, processed or prepackaged. Animal protein heated at high temperatures can create carcinogens, he said.
Eating junk food at school is becoming a bad habit among children who refuse to eat at home, thus creating an unbalanced diet and a bad image for schools, he said.
Hà Nội’s police have recently broken up several rings transporting food items with unclear origins to the city. Most recently, on March 31, Bùi Trọng Dũng, 29, from Hải Phòng City, reportedly failed to provide legal documents while being caught transporting a huge amount of confectionery from northern border provinces to Hà Nội. Dũng said the goods would be distributed to the Đồng Xuân Market in Hà Nội and sold to food sellers at school gates.
Vendors are technically banned from setting up shop in front of school gates and on pavements, but lax measures and loose management have done little to remedy the situation.
Major Đinh Văn Thanh, head of Mỹ Đình 2 Ward’s police of Hà Nội’s Mỹ Đình District, said that selling food with unknown origins exists in many places in Hà Nội. Local police have stepped up drastic measures, but punishing violators is more difficult because most of the sellers operate on a small scale and do not have fixed business locations.
Lê Thanh Hà, vice principal of Bình Minh Primary School, said the authorities should deal not only with street vendors, but also households located next to schools that run businesses. Parents, schools and local authorities should co-operate to deal with the situation, Hà said.
Another solution is for parents to refrain from giving money to their children to buy snacks, she said.
Dr Lâm Quốc Hùng, head of the Food Poisoning Monitoring Division of the Food Safety Department under the Ministry of Health, told Lao Động (Labour) newspaper that all street vendors are banned from doing business in front of school gates because their products are not good for health.
He said buyers need to identify standards on the products’ covers, such as clear brands, names of authorised agencies and expiration dates. They also should check for mould and other signs of expiration. Children are not able to identify these features, so it is parents’ responsibility to advise their children not to consume street food, he said.
As part of the city’s efforts to crack down on tainted food in general and contaminated food sold near schools, an action month for food safety is being recognised from April 15 to May 15 this year. People’s committees at all levels within the city have pledged their commitment to remove food stalls that encroach on pavements and streets, and fail to follow food safety regulations. — VNS