|Viet Nam was gripped by a food scare early last week, after the Centre for Study and Consultation on Consumerism under the Viet Nam Standard and Consumer Protection Association announced they had found traces of Tinopal in 24 out of 30 rice noodles samples taken in HCM City.
by Bich Huong
Viet Nam was gripped by a food scare early last week, after the Centre for Study and Consultation on Consumerism under the Viet Nam Standard and Consumer Protection Association announced they had found traces of Tinopal in 24 out of 30 rice noodles samples taken in HCM City.
Tinopal, an optical brightening agent usually used for paper making, was detected in bun (fresh rice noodle or rice vermicelli) – a popular food in Viet Nam.
Many people were shocked by the news, which echoes a Ha Noi case ten years ago when the media reported formaldehyde - a chemical used to preserve corpses – had been found in pho to lengthen the shelf life of rice noodles.
The two substances, tinopal and formaldehyde, are both banned from use in food processing because they can cause liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.
I remember how the formaldehyde scandal changed the eating habits of many people at the time, despite pho traditionally being a favourite breakfast dish of many Vietnamese. Pho makers and traders were hit hard by the slump in demand – is the same thing about to happen to bun?
Watching people slurp bowls of hot noodles in my neigbourhood while I struggled to decide what I wanted for lunch, I wondered if they heard the news already.
"I read about it," said Nguyen Hong Hanh, 29, of Ha Noi's Hoang Mai District, before asking me: "Do you know what is now safe to eat?"
She regularly makes a list of possibly unsafe food based on news reports, including fruit and vegetables containing high levels of pesticide residue, E.Coli bacteria-infected drinks and chilli sauce with cancer-causing Rhodamine B.
"Every day, we hear about food poisoning, harmful chemicals in food, unhygienic food processing and other malpractices on the internet, TV, radio or in newspaper," she said.
"The information helps me a lot in choosing goods for my family but no one can guarantee that all the food I buy is safe," she said, implying that long-term or invisible consequences of unsafe food may not be immediately apparent.
"But we have to eat to live," many people tell me that ‘If you don't eat anything, you'll die without ever knowing if the food was safe or not.'"
If only there was an agency which was strong and respected enough to test all the food on sale in market to reassure consumers like her, Hanh said.
"However, we don't know who or which agency to trust in," she added, noting that consumers must take precautions such as finding reliable food sellers, dining out less or even growing vegetables at home.
Vuong Quoc Tuan, Deputy Secretary General of the Viet Nam Standard and Consumer Protection Association, said the association conducted surveys aiming to help State and Government management agencies closely supervise the market.
"The survey findings or warnings are expected to help them review and take timely measures to address problems," he said, adding that the association also followed up complaints from customers whose rights had been violated.
Each year, the association received around 1,000 complaints from consumers and helped address roughly 83 per cent of them, Tuan said, noting that complaints over food safety, together with goods/services quality and maintenance, made up a high proportion.
When it comes to food safety issues in Viet Nam, the ministries of Health, Agriculture and Rural Development, plus the Ministry of Industry and Trade are charged with regulatory responsibilities.
Inter-sector inspections, including those involving ministers, were carried out early this year for the peak time of the Tet holiday and will also feature in time for the Mid-Autumn festivals.
However, they still have lots of work to do as the issue of unsafe food has been a constant menace, heightening concern among the public.
According to the Health Ministry's Food Safety Department, in the first half of this year, over 1,800 people were exposed to 87 food poisoning cases - 18 of them died.
During this period, 11,000 inspection groups worked nationwide, examining over 199,700 establishments and factories, of which, 42,000 establishments violated food safety regulations and 18 per cent of 16,000 samples failed to meet food safety criteria.
In the latest move to tackle the Tinopal-laced bun situation in HCM City, the city's Department of Industry and Trade organised a meeting on Monday with major rice noodle producers in the city who signed a commitment to not use Tinopal in their production process.
Violators will be fined or have their business licences revoked.
But questions remain and as Hanh pointed out: "Have any violators been jailed for making or trading unsafe food that a consumer could pay for with their life?" — VNS