Dr. Nguyen Thanh Phong, Director of the Vietnam Food Administration, spoke with VET about food safety control and inspection.
What is the current status of food safety control and inspection in Vietnam?
All ministries, departments, and local authorities have conducted inspections but specialized inspections are only done at the central and city or provincial level, while districts and communes only conduct basic inspections.
Every year the Central Inter-sector Steering Committee on food hygiene and safety, ministries, and people’s committees issue plans and conduct snap inspections. Coordination among ministries and local authorities is high.
There are about 250 officers specializing in food safety and hygiene inspections, of which 44 are at the central level. Personnel are limited and not enough to meet requirements.
What difficulties are there in food safety control and inspection?
Food processing and production units in Vietnam are mostly small and seasonal. There are nearly 10 million households that grow rice and vegetables and breed chickens and fish, which are sold at markets. Vietnam has 500,000 food processing units, of which 85 per cent are small and medium-size. Investment in equipment and facilities is quite limited, and their production models have been in place for hundreds of years.
It’s still common for local people to consume unsafe or raw food. Administrative measures will never change such habits.
Many people, especially in rural and remote areas, are low-income earners and simply can’t afford to buy high-quality food. They buy cheap food and food of questionable origin, knowing full well the risk they are taking.
Pollution has accompanied Vietnam’s industrialization and modernization and has a negative impact on food production and processing.
As the country integrates globally we have the opportunity to export and import food. But if our management systems are found wanting we will find ourselves consuming unsafe food from other countries.
Despite the government’s attention, investment in the management of food safety remains low. Funds made available for the task in the 2001-2005 period was only one-twentieth of those in Thailand. Funding increased in the 2006-2010 period but in 2014 was cut by 60 per cent compared to 2013.
The number of officers specializing in food safety and hygiene inspections is still short of what’s required and those involved now lack expertise compared with elsewhere in Asia.
Many businesses in the industry use herbicides or even banned substances to earn higher profits, regardless of public health concerns. Local authorities, meanwhile, are not serious about handling food safety violations.
The national program on food safety has only been in place for about ten years, which is too short to resolve the numerous issues.
What about food safety inspections at restaurants and food producers?
Regulations require food and beverage establishments to have a food safety certificate issued under Article 5 of Circular No. 47/2014 /TT-BYT.
Departments of Food Safety and Hygiene in cities and provinces are responsible for issuing certificates to establishments serving at least 200 people that were granted a certificate of business registration by the Ministry of Planning and Investment and the Departments of Planning and Investment in cities and provinces.
Meanwhile, people’s committees (or competent agencies) of provincial-affiliated communes, districts and cities shall be responsible for issuing a certificate to establishments serving less than 200 people.
Limited safety inspections at schools and industrial parks, where large quantities of food are provided daily, have resulted in many cases of food poisoning.
Awareness about food safety must be improved via the media so that people know the issues and can choose safe food and food safety violations must be handled in a stricter manner.