HÀ NỘI — The school milk programme is an important measure to fight stunting and micronutrient deficiency in Vietnamese children, which continue to a be leading cause of the inferior physical stature of Vietnamese people, according to nutrition experts.
With the economic growth it has achieved in past decades, Việt Nam has made remarkable strides in improving nutrition in the population, evidenced by the sustainable reduction of malnutrition among children, according to the National Institute of Nutrition.
However, nearly one fourth of Vietnamese children aged under five are still under height or underweight for their age, with a wide gap between remote, disadvantaged areas and urban centres – the ratio shoots up to 30.3 per cent in the northern mountainous provinces and 34.2 per cent in the Central Highlands, according to the nutrition institute.
Dr Lê Bạch Mai, former deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, said Vietnamese people usually suffer from a deficiency of vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc, iron and calcium – essential elements the body needs only in minuscule amounts but hold a significant role in a proper development and well-being.
A survey by the institute in 2014-2015 showed that vitamin A pre-clinical deficiency affects 13 per cent of children under five years old, a whopping 80.3 per cent of pregnant women and 63.6 per cent of woman of childbearing age. Nearly 70 per cent of children under five suffer from a zinc shortage and 45 per cent of six to 12 month old babies endure anaemia.
The Government-led national school milk programme is aimed at improving nutrition and enhancing the stature of primary school pupils via daily consumption of milk, with the budget split between the central government, local authorities and dairy producers.
Dr Bạch Mai expressed worries over the fact that yearly milk consumption of Vietnamese people averaged only 27-28 litres, a humble figure compared to Thailand, Singapore or Japan.
He cited a 2010 survey by the institute which shows that Vietnamese diets are not meeting the required standards for essential vitamins and minerals due to a lack of diversity in the food intake, and urged dairy milk producers, especially those participating in the school milk programme, to put more micronutrients into their products.
Nguyễn Thị Mười, head of the Mặt Trời (Sun) kindergarten in the central province of Thanh Hoá, which was selected as the location for the launch of Micronutrient Day in late May this year, said one of the staff’s most pressing concerns is to give meals with sufficient nutrition to the small children.
The products aimed at supplementing micronutrient intake for school students at this sensitive age need to be tested aggressively to ensure safety and quality, Mười said, referring to the proven school national milk programme that is being implemented in several localities across the country like Hà Nội, Bến Tre and Vũng Tàu.
While experts said the importance of micronutrients could not be overstated, there was still limited awareness among the public on the need to up intake, especially in children.
Earlier this year, there were some doubts raised about the quality of the milk offered in the national milk programme, with an article in a local newspaper alleging the supplemental micronutrients in the dairy products were “against regulations”. The accusation prompted concern among the public, especially parents.
The issue escalated to the point where Vinamilk, a formerly State-owned dairy company that has remained one of the country's top performing businesses in recent years and is one of the primary suppliers for the school milk programme, asked for police to investigate the “hidden agenda” behind the claims.
Health officials and nutrition experts have responded quickly to the allegations to allay public unease.
Nguyễn Văn Nhiên, deputy chief inspector of the health ministry, said that Vinamilk’s addition of 10 vitamins and four minerals to their products is not against regulations, but is in line with what Vietnamese children need at their age.
“This brings significant health benefits and claims that they somehow have adverse effects on health are simply untrue,” Nhiên said.
He said supplementary iron, calcium and vitamin D is necessary to meet the targets set in the Government’s decision on national school milk that was signed in July 2016.
The decision also did not preclude supplementing milk with other nutrients – the dairy companies were to decide the appropriate level, not exceeding the recommended level issued by the health ministry and the National Institute of Nutrition, according to Nhiên.
Nhiên said the national school milk programme is important to future generations of Vietnamese, so the dairy companies supplying milk for the programme are frequently inspected.
So far, there has not been any violation – especially in terms of quality, hygiene or safety – detected in the school milk products, he added.
Nguyễn Quốc Khánh, executive director of research and development at Vinamilk, said the milk products supplied to the national school milk programme, have passed clinical reviews and got the nod of approval from the National Institute of Nutrition, confirming its effectiveness in alleviating micronutrient deficiency in school pupils.
The addition of 14 micronutrients will surely make the milk products cost more but participating dairy companies do not prioritise profits in supplying milk for the programme, so prices are kept the same as normal.
“Objectively speaking, these companies have a sense of social responsibility when they add the micronutrients into the school milk products, and I'm not saying this because I am heading a dairy association,” said Trần Quang Trung, chairman of the Việt Nam Dairy Association and former director of the food safety department at the health ministry. — VNS