Stricter food safety necessary

April 14, 2016 - 09:00

Thu Vân

Earlier this month, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Cao Đức Phát, told the National Assembly in Hà Nội that most of our food is safe, it’s just that people don’t know that fact.

On the very same day, in central Đà Nẵng City, authorities discovered the use of Auramine O by vendors to add yellow colour to bamboo shoots, making them look more attractive. Auramine O is a water-soluble diarylmethane dye, which can cause cancer if consumed by humans over time.

In January this year, some seven tonnes of food containing salbutamol, which helps in the treatment of asthma. However, this substance is not permitted to be used in animal feeding, nor should appear in our food.

Many more examples can be cited in argument with the minister. Vegetables and fruits tainted with higher-than-permitted chemical residues have also become a nightmare for the public recently.

Phát had to apologised for his statement in the end, but people need more than an apology. They want safe food. Isn’t that just a basic right?

Most agricultural production in Việt Nam takes place on small-scale farms. In the 1970s, when the country’s economy was underdeveloped and poor, the government subsidised fertilisers and pesticides in order to increase agricultural productivity. As the country changed, this habit did not. Farmers started growing crops for profit, instead of subsistence, and they become more and more dependent on chemicals.

In Vietnamese culture, many people buy their food at small markets, where it’s hard to know the origins of the food they buy – or what’s inside the food. They might be safe, but after so many discoveries of unsafe food samples like those mentioned above, people are becoming more and more suspicious.

Many now try to grow their own vegetables, and get pork, beef and poultry products from trusted sources. Many avoid the small markets and turn to supermarkets or safe food shops – where food origin standards and food prices are often higher.

But not everybody can afford that.

And the problem is, why can only well-off people afford safe food? Will people with moderate incomes have to risk consuming unsafe food because they have no other choice?

When doing business, people will tend to maximise their profits. This motivation will, in theory, encourage people to do everything they can for more and more profit. But what can stop them from doing anything at all, regardless of the consequences to consumers?

In my opinion, the first thing is morality. It’s undeniable that those who use prohibited and harmful chemicals in food and then sell them onto the market are just evil. If only the humanity in them could win over the greed, then they wouldn’t do such things to people.

There’s a humourous story spreading around town about a butcher that wouldn’t buy meat at the market, and a greengrocer wouldn’t buy vegetables at the market. Instead, they raised their own domestic cattle and vegetables, respectively, for home consumption. The joke is that the butcher ended up eating unsafe vegetables, and the greengrocer ended up eating unsafe meat. What now?

Telling someone to act kindly doesn’t take a day. Profound campaigns should be conducted to change the thinking and behaviour of individuals and firms working in the food supply chain.

The second thing that can stop unsafe food is the law. If the law is tough enough, and the enforcement is strong enough, I’m sure things will be different. But what we’ve seen are occasional inspections, soft punishments and lax management.

Is the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, or the Ministry of Trade responsible for unsafe food and the use of unsafe substances in food? Take the case of importing salbutamol as an example. While the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said they banned the import of salbutamol, the health ministry said salbutamol was a necessary chemical in the making of medicines.

When the legal system doesn’t operate effectively, the motivation to maximise profits will still “encourage” people to violate the law. Punishments must be far more severe, including larger fines or longer jail time.

Chairman of the Viet Nam Fatherland Front, Nguyễn Thiện Nhân, said consuming unsafe food was like consuming poison.

The revised Criminal Code has increased the penalties for violating food hygiene regulations. Those caught using banned substances in the manufacture, processing or preservation of food will face up to 20 years in prison.

As someone once said, “We are what we eat.” I hope we are green and fresh, not chemically poisoned.--VNS