Food safety imperative to social stability

Update: May, 21/2012 - 09:50
According to initial statistics from the Viet Nam Food Administration, between April and May this year there were 972 food-poisoning cases reported. Of those affected, 700 were hospitalised and four died.

In April, the Prime Minister approved the National Strategic Plan on Food Safety for the 2011-20 period, with a vision to 2030.

However, with daily reports hitting the headlines of pork containing lean-meat additives being sold and countless numbers hospitalised with severe food poisoning, food safety continues to be a cause of widespread concern. The Vietnam News Agency spoke with experts about the issue.

Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan, head of the National Inter-sector Steering Committee on Food Safety

Besides economic growth, the Government considers the task of ensuring every family eats healthily to be critically important to social stability.

Though we have achieved positive results in food safety, it remains a serious issue that has drawn a great deal of public attention. The Prime Minister recently approved the National Strategy on Food Safety for the 2011-20 period, with a vision until 2030. Food safety is not something we can improve overnight.

Established four years ago, the National Inter-sector Steering Committee on Food Safety has engaged the participation of local authorities and relevant agencies at all levels. In 2011, we increased inspections at livestock rearing and food processing facilities. The committee estimates that 80 per cent of food producers and consumers now have some kind of awareness about hygiene and safety.

The Government has requested that from now until the third quarter of this year, all provinces and cities complete their four-year plan on food safety for the 2011-15 period. This is considered an important foundation to gain better co-ordination among agencies and sectors.

We have also been working to increase food safety inspections and enhance co-operation among the police, ministries of health, agriculture and rural planning, and industry and trade.

Localities are encouraged to increase awareness of food safety with concrete action plans that apply specifically to their own situation. This year, localities will focus on growing safe vegetables, eliminating the selling of prohibited products and unsafe slaughtering.

The trade ministry also plans to improve safety and hygiene in markets, and its has already piloted projects in six border provinces. It has also increased the number of staff that specialise in food safety monitoring.

We have always been committed to ensuring that all imported food has proper paperwork stating its origin. Also, the National Food Safety Strategy stipulates that all localities with a population of more than 2 million must have a food safety lab.

Nguyen Hung Long, deputy head of the Viet Nam Food Administration


Nguyen Hung Long

It's true that there is a lot said in the media about unsafe food practices.

In general, the media has helped reflect part of the situation and uncovered violations committed by organisations, individuals and businesses, allowing authorities to act timely.

However, we have gained many improvements in regards to food safety management in recent years, contributing significantly to the quality of domestic food products, as well as those that are imported and exported.

There are a lot of loopholes in the way food hygiene is current managed. Ministries and other relevant agencies are still working to find the best way to fulfil the tasks set out by the Law on Food Safety, which has only been effective for about a year.

It's true that the expertise level in our testing facilities and among our staff is inadequate. They have not reached the level that we need to monitor, for example, the smuggling of unsafe food through border provinces, thus leading to the sale of rotten meat, tamarinds of no-known origin and food containing prohibited additives.

In 2011, the Ministry of Health established a set of standards that would help evaluate each province's level of food safety.

The standards are divided into three groups. The first deals with standards of food production, plantation, aquaculture raising, processing, slaughtering, distribution – in addition to standards for food businesses and restaurants and cafeterias.

The second deals with the level of competence of authorities in monitoring food safety. And the third group deals with the situation on the ground, such as the situation of acute food poisoning or the percentage of tainted samples in that province.

Using these standards, the national committee plans to rank each province in terms of food safety. We believe that it would help localities revise their plans accordingly.

In 2011, there were nearly 100,000 food safety violations found in 500,000 inspected facilities. The enforcement of administrative fines has still been quite difficult since many of our regulations and requirements are unclear. Fine levels do not reflect the severity of the violation. In some case, the stipulated fine has been quite low compared to the benefits of flouting the law.

The Ministry of Health is also working on a draft decree on administrative fines for food safety violations, which aims to make penalties far harsher.

With the approval of the National Food Strategy 2011-2015, we hope that by 2015, the country will have a complete and comprehensive development plan for monitoring food safety levels from production to consumption on the basis of a competitive management system.

By 2020, we hope that we can basically control the food supply chain and become more proactive in protecting the health and rights of consumers.

Lawyer Nguyen Bao Tram, Sai Gon Lawyers


Nguyen Bao Tram
We have a series of legal documents on food safety, such as the Law on Food Safety 2010, the Law on Products and Goods Quality 2007, Government Decree 45 issued in 2005 on administrative fines in the health sector and the Penal Code (Article 244 on food safety violations).

However, many of these legal documents lack clear focus. They overlap and do not meet the current reality when it comes to food safety.

For example, Government Decree 45/2005 stipulates that those who use chemicals to hide the fact that food is rotting are subject to fines of between VND10-15 million. However, the decree was issued on the basis of the Ordinance on Food Safety in 2003, which expired on July 1, 2011.

The Penal Code also stipulates that anyone who processes, provides or sells food that is harmful to others or could endanger the lives of others can be imprisoned for between one to 15 years, or fined VND5 to 50 million. In addition, they can be prohibited from working in their current occupation or any kind of employment for between one to five years.

However, for many years, these punishments have only existed on paper. 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 the consumer".

We all know that in many cases, consuming unsafe food does not immediately affect our health. And even if that were the case, we have to prove that the negative health effects were related to the consumption of unsafe food. At the same time, not all consumers know whether the consumption of unsafe food could be "deadly enough" for officials to bring criminal charges.

It's critical to revise what we currently have in Article 244 of the Penal Code so that we don't have to prove that unsafe food could be deadly to consumers or create unexpected health consequences. If food producers are found to violate any food safety rule, they should be subjected to criminal charges.

The direct link between tainted food and consumer health can be used as "aggravating circumstances" only.

However, we do not have to wait until the law to be revised. We need to consider fighting unsafe food practices everyone's responsibility.

We need to increase the number of food inspections, accusations and uncover major cases. Other tasks include increasing administrative fines for food safety violations and boycotting unsafe products.

When lots of people are involved, it's easier to publicly denounce all unsafe food products.

We also need an effective legal framework that can ensure all food products go through an evaluation process and meet certain safety standards before they reach the consumer. Producers, distributors and retailers must be made liable for the quality of their products.

In addition, besides ordering violators to pay fines, we can revoke their licences, confiscate products or order the destruction of unsafe products. — VNS