Quality is high on the minds of food retailers but is difficult to ensure in every single instance.
A popular item at the vegetable counter of a foreign supermarket in Hanoi’s Tay Son Street over the last few months has been cabbage with “TQ” noted on its label. Many customers took it home, believing it to be from Tuyen Quang province, a mountainous area in Vietnam’s north known for its fresh vegetables. When quality inspectors paid the supermarket a visit, however, it was determined that “TQ” stood for Trung Quoc, the Vietnamese name for China. The supermarket was then asked to clarify that “TQ” is China, not Tuyen Quang, and sales tumbled.
When asked about poor quality food being sold at some supermarkets, Ms Dinh Thi My Loan, Chairwoman of the Association of Vietnam Retailers, said it is impossible to ask supermarkets to guarantee the quality of every single item they sell. “Modern retailers sell about a hundred thousand different products,” she explained, so the task is virtually impossible.
To guarantee the quality of fresh food, most supermarkets require their suppliers hold certificates such as Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practices (VietGAP), Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), and Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). VietGAP certification is issued by two Vietnamese authorities under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development: the Plant Cultivation Department (PCD) for vegetable products and the Department for Livestock Production (DLP) for meat products. However, achieving VietGAP certification is difficult and expensive because of the strict processes involved, so many suppliers settle for HACCP and PGS.
Representatives from Unimart supermarkets and FairFood convenience stores agreed that managing input quality is an important activity. Some supermarkets sell food with VietGAP certification while other food has other certificates. FairFood, for example, cooperates with non-government organisations to grow crops and raise animals, based on foreign standards, according to Ms Vu Thi Chinh, Head of the Procurement Department at the convenience store chain. She was, however, reluctant to reveal to VET what those foreign standards were. She has faith in FairFood’s suppliers, so the chain’s staff only examine the food quality of their suppliers monthly.
Inspection by Hapro supermarkets is different, as they continually send staff to farms. Unimart also check that crops are grown under VietGAP standards but are unable to intervene in the process.
Authorities, of course, are also tasked with ensuring standards are met. Figures from the PCD and the General Statistics Office (GSO) show that crops are grown under VietGAP standards on only 1 per cent of agricultural land in Vietnam. Ninety-nine per cent of land is therefore used for growing crops under different standards. The proportion of fresh meat produced under sound controls is higher than fresh vegetables, but stood at only 35 per cent as at September, according to Mr Hoang Thanh Van, Head of the DLP. Consequently, reliable fresh food may not be the top priority of modern retailers, as the “TQ” cabbage case shows.
Although modern retailers can do little to control fresh food quality at farms, their inspections before sale play an important role in food quality management. The manager at one Unimart supermarket said it recently detected a batch of poor quality vegetable that it returned to its supplier. Regarding meat products, it has both the technology and techniques to check quality, especially the use of preservatives. Nonetheless, she acknowledged that the supermarket lacks the technology to check vegetable quality, which is best done visually. At FairFood, staff also don’t have the technology or techniques to check fresh food before it goes on sale.
Supervising suppliers and controlling food quality before sale are normally contained in contracts. Supermarkets also have other steps in managing fresh food. One relates to store management, ensuring “first in, first out”, where older products are sold first and expiry dates on products are monitored. When selling fresh food, storage temperatures are a decisive factor in maintaining quality. Customer feedback, meanwhile, allows them to select the right types of food the best storage method. Finally, a follow up with suppliers allows them to determine whether they are following the terms of the contract. “These steps must be undertaken seriously, because if any step is not done properly it may affect food quality,” said Mr Vu Vinh Phu, Chairman of the Hanoi Supermarket Association.
Making an effort
Supermarkets, of course, do their utmost to ensure the quality of the food they sell. When low quality food is found at Unimart the supermarket apologises to customers, provides a refund, and identifies how it happened. Its staff have also been trained by Japanese experts in recognising low quality food by sight and are equipped with techniques to maintain freshness over a longer period than usual without the use of preservatives.
Mr Pham Van Du, Deputy Head the PCD, didn’t hesitate to say that the quality of fresh vegetables simply can’t be 100 per cent guaranteed. Problems in food hygiene can occur within the value chain (producers and distributors) and are best addressed by good cooperation and understanding. “The management of food quality is split among the links in the chain,” he said. Authority is also split, with MARD controlling food input quality, the Ministry of Industry and Trade deciding how products are distributed in the market, and the Ministry of Health (MoH) checking food hygiene.
As an expert at the VinaControl Group, which has most accurate tests of food hygiene in Vietnam that MARD and MoH rely on, Mr Dang Quoc Tuan said that authorities examine food products at supermarkets only when purchasers raise concerns about food quality. The number of complaints lodged with the Vietnam Standard and Consumer Association (VINASTAS) is actually on the decline. The association received 43 complaints from around the country in the first half of 2014, despite the fact that in the first two months of the year there were more than 16,000 producers found to have violated food hygiene standards, according to the Vietnam Food Administration under MoH.
Problems with food hygiene have long been common in Vietnam, but most people tend to just accept it as part of life as they believe speaking out is a waste of time and money. Regardless, they can do a lot to protect themselves, by paying greater attention to the origin of the products they buy and not being caught assuming “TQ” means a Vietnamese province and not the huge neighbour to the north.
“The value chain is important for any type of goods and is deeply affected by understanding among the participants and by inspections. To enhance food quality we need to enhance links in the chain.”
Mr Pham Van Du, Deputy Head of the Plant Cultivation Department under MARD
“Although securing VietGAP certification is difficult and expensive and prices may not reflect these standards having been met, many livestock farmers still volunteer to follow the standards. They know the importance of VietGAP in both domestic and overseas markets.”
Mr Hoang Thanh Van, Head of the Department for Livestock Production under MARD
“Retailers must select suppliers and types of goods that are the best for consumers. If any problems arise regarding quality, both retailers and suppliers must take responsibility.”
Ms Dinh Thi My Loan, Chairwoman of the Association of Vietnam Retailers