Confusion reigns when it comes to food safety in Vietnam and greater awareness is becoming paramount.
It’s 7am on a Sunday morning and Mrs. Le Thi Tam has just been to her local market in Vinh Phuc ward, Ba Dinh district in Hanoi to buy food for the week. She was careful in choosing everything she bought but when asked why she chose certain products she said she follows her heart and has no idea about food safety and hygiene.
“I choose old vegetables and fat meat, which I consider to be safe,” Mrs. Tam said. “To be honest, when grocery shopping it’s difficult to distinguish between healthy and unsafe food.”
After VET asked another ten housewives at the market about their purchases it was clear that none could tell the difference between good and bad.
It’s a problem found all around the country, unfortunately. Many people joke that they don’t know what they should eat and perhaps should just starve.
Warnings about contaminated food come nearly every day, such as coffee made from soy flour, contaminated pork skin, dirty oil, vegetables infected by insecticides, pork infected with banned substances like salbutamol or neuroleptic, pork soaked in chemicals to masquerade as beef, or salted shredded meat with unsafe food coloring. The “Say No to Dirty Food” program launched by Vietnam Television shows pictures of poor quality food but not many people seem to take note.
In 2015, 140 cases of serious food poisoning were recorded in Vietnam, affecting 4,273 people, of which 20 died. As at March there were 17 cases of serious food poisoning this year, affecting 1,011 and killing two.
“Together with food poisoning, unsafe food can also cause a slow death,” said Professor Ngo Thi Ngoc Anh, Director of the Research Center for Gender, Family and Community Development. “Contaminated food will directly impact on the country’s future.”
As reported by Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital in 2014, every year Vietnam has some 110,000 new cancer patients and more than 73 per cent die. Its report also showed that Vietnam has among the highest death rates from cancer in the world.
According to figures from the Ministry of Health, every year about 150,000 new cancer cases are identified and 75,000 people die. Cancer is becoming a terrible problem in the country. An analysis of patient data shows that more than one-third of the country’s cancer patients are in the 25-49 year old age group.
The main factors in cancer cases in Vietnam are smoking, lack of physical activity, alcohol, and obesity. Contaminated food is also considered a carcinogen, because eating unsafe food for long periods causes genetic mutations, making people more susceptible to cancer. The most common type of cancer in Vietnam is gastrointestinal cancer, accounting for over 22 per cent of all cases.
The Chairman of the Vietnam Cancer Association, Professor Nguyen Chan Hung, said that food containing banned chemicals and substances contain carcinogens but their effect takes time to become apparent.
A number of campaigns against unsafe food have been conducted to assist consumers in choosing clean and healthy products, with local authorities making a great deal of effort to fight the scourge.
The Criminal Code 2015 will come into effect on July 1, introducing new penalties for violating regulations relating to food hygiene and safety. Anyone who uses banned substances or processes and distributes food known to be unhygienic will be subject fines of up to VND200 million ($9,000) and as long as 20 years in prison.
On March 30 a joint program was approved by then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF) Nguyen Thien Nhan to encourage and supervise food safety and hygiene in the 2016-2020 period. The program targets raising awareness among individuals, households, organizations, and food producers and businesses about safe food and heighten their responsibility for ensuring people’s health. It also aims to encourage, commend, and expand role models in the production and business of safe food while punishing infringements.
The program will propose, amend, and supplement the legal system over the State management of food hygiene. It looks to encourage at least 90 per cent of agricultural households to commit to producing safe food and 100 per cent of collectives to produce and trade in safe food by 2020. All communes recognized as new rural areas and towns considered to be in civilized urban areas must meet hygiene food standards.
The Agricultural Trade Promotion Center under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development launched the first e-market for Vietnam’s agricultural, forestry, and fishery products, called AGROMART, at the end of last year. Via the www.agromart.com.vn website, AGROMART helps consumers select safer and certified products with clear origin.
Many companies investing in clean food see it as a potential investment niche and even real estate enterprises and electronic retailers have entered the field.
In 2015 VinEco built a 24.5 ha greenhouse in northern Vinh Phuc province with investment of VND1 trillion ($44.2 million). The greenhouse uses Israeli technology and is the largest in Vietnam. It now supplies 3,500 tonnes of hygienic fresh vegetables each year that meet VietGAP hygiene standards and other global standards. This is VinEco’s second greenhouse, after its first in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cu Chi district. The greenhouse is a major step forward in large-scale investment in agriculture by Vingroup. VinEco plans to change the growing methods adopted by Vietnamese farmers to ensure a healthy agriculture sector in the future.
Before VinEco launched its first batch of fresh vegetables, Mobile World (MWG), also known as thegioididong, a giant in the country’s electronics retail sector, announced the establishment of a fresh food and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) chain. Mr. Nguyen Duc Tai, CEO of MWG, told local media that demand for fresh and clean food is high but the market has not fully met demand.
Meanwhile, a subsidiary of the Hoa Phat Group specializing in minerals has shifted to the livestock sector, building a plant with an annual capacity of 300,000 tons of animal feed. By 2020 the company is expected to have output of 1 million tons of feed each year and will also farm 1 million pigs. Investing in animal feed and pig farming is how Hoa Phat plans to build a chain of clean agricultural production.
Behind the scenes
The media constantly publishes news about unsafe food but awareness remains low. Many people lack knowledge on the subject and don’t know how to choose clean food. Though standards exist to define clean agricultural products, such as VietGAP and GlobalGAP, the housewives VET spoke to knew little about them.
The ongoing fight against unsafe food seems to have created a degree of fear over food. “People need to know exactly what is clean and what is unsafe, otherwise it creates confusion and doubt,” Mrs. Ngoc Anh said. “We are pushing our farmers and food businesses into a difficult situation if they don’t know which standard and criteria they should follow.”
To capitalize on the confusion, many small businesses have started labeling their food as “clean” and charging prices three times higher than in markets. While demand for such products is high, it takes serious investment and transparency regarding product origin.
Mr. Le Thanh Long, the owner of Hikifoods on Hanoi’s Vu Trong Phung Street, said that many stores appoint themselves as organic vegetable sellers but have no certification whatsoever. “This affects a lot to people who conduct business honestly,” he said.
Ms. Ngoc Anh also pointed out that fear over food safety has caused many people to grow vegetables. “This will impact negatively on economic development as consumption and trade exchange becomes limited,” she said.
Nguyen Manh Hung, Deputy Chairman and General Secretary of the Vietnam Consumer Protection Association, spoke with VET about unsafe food and the fight against it.
■ What can you tell us unsafe food in Vietnam?
From the perspective of a social organization involved in defending consumers, I think the problem of unsafe food has reached emergency levels. The media and management agencies have reported many cases of poisoning at kitchens in industrial zones involving up to 500 or 600 people and the increasing number of cancer patients every year that are caused by contaminated food.
Consumers are confused about safe and healthy food so decide to plant vegetables on their rooftops and balconies. Those who can’t do this are left without the knowledge to make sound purchasing decisions. Not all food is problematic, but distinguishing good from bad is not easy, especially when some supermarkets, which are generally considered reliable, started selling vegetables of unknown origin.
■ What about the inspection and management of unsafe food in Vietnam?
Inspection and management of food safety has been strengthened over recent years. Many violations, including some that were quite serious, have been identified detected and handled, which limits the damage to consumers. Work in this regard is yet to meet requirements, however.
■ From July 1, anyone using banned substances or processes and distributing food known to be unsafe could be fined up to VND200 million ($9,000) and be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison. What do you think about this new regulation and how will it affect the fight against unsafe food?
I think the new policy expresses the determined attitude of the government towards the production and trade of food that is harmful to human health. The new regulation aims to increase the deterrent and will have a positive impact.
■ Many enterprises producing and selling clean food face difficulties and some have gone out of business. What are your thoughts on this?
I believe that unsafe food not only impacts on consumers but also on food producers and sellers. In an effort to support the sale of safe vegetables, we have cooperated with a foreign organization to develop a safe vegetable model in six cities and provinces. Safe vegetable shops opened in some central markets a few years ago and received a lot of attention from consumers. These have been victims of false information from other shops, however, which is one of many acts of unfair competition.Healthy food producers and businesses simply can’t compete with those using banned substances. This has happened because of inadequate management and a lack of business ethics among some producers and businesses.