Fruit farmers in southern Vietnam are injecting their produce with chemicals to make them ripen quicker and go rotten slower.
Orchard owners and fruit dealers -- particularly those dealing in jackfruit and durian -- have also been found soaking their goods in such chemicals, which experts say could be poisonous, according to a Tuoi Tre investigation wrapped up last month.
Lan, a durian dealer from Dong Nai Province said she buys tons of durians every day and "there's no time to wait for them to get ripe."
She argued that using the chemicals saves her time and energy.
Lan buys durians harvested when they are only 70 to 80 days old. The fruit normally needs to grow for 100 to 110 days before it is edible.
A Dong Nai jackfruit orchard owner named Dung said the dealers she sells to by both ripe and unripe fruits. "I don't know what chemicals they use to make the fruits sell so well," she said.
Trang, whose durian orchard in Dong Nai supplies more than a ton of durians to wholesalers in neighboring provinces, said "I have to use chemical to have enough ripe fruits for supply."
The chemical solution is simple to use.
"Put two to three caps of ethephon in a bucket of water, mix it up and soak each durian in it. Leave the fruits aside and they will ripen overnight," Trang said.
Ethephon produced by Germany's Bayer Science and Jiangsu Anpon Electrochemicals Co. in China are the most widely used plant growth regulators.
Some orchard owners use another kind of chemical called "Trai Chin" (Ripe Fruit) produced by a firm in District 12, HCMC. The ingredients of Trai Chin have not been officially discerned yet.
Trang said some people inject the chemical directly into the fruit to make its skin thinner.
Mai, a jackfruit farmer in Dong Nai, said that she would inject two to five milliliters of the chemical into each fruit, depending on how big it is.
"If you want the fruit to get ripe quicker, just inject more," she said.
"The fruit will surely be ripe all over after two days"¦ If some parts of the fruit are ripe naturally, just inject the chemical into other parts."
Mai said she injects the chemical into nearly a ton of jackfruit every day to meet orders from Hanoi and central provinces.
"The jackfruits are ripe when they reach my customers and they can sell the fruits more easily," she said.
"Trai Chin" is sold widely by pesticide dealers around Dong Nai.
Tam, a local shop owner, said the chemical "sells like hotcakes and people who eat the fruits have no problems."
The man sells the chemical for VND32,000 (US$1.54) per half-liter.
It is nearly impossible to tell which fruits have been injected with the solution, and which have not, he said.
Thuan, an orchard owner in District 12, HCMC, has a special trick to keep his fruits fresh for at least a month after their harvest.
He uses a yellow Chinese solution to soak big fruits like durian, or to spray small fruits like apples or oranges.
Many chemicals with similar functions are sold publicly at Kim Bien wholesale market in the city's District 5.
More than ten kinds of such chemicals, mostly unlabeled and imported from China, were spotted by Tuoi Tre at the market, which also sells the chemicals for ripening fruits at VND500,000 a liter.
According to experts, the chemicals used contain fungicide components such as carbendazim and benomyl, and thus can keep the fruits undamaged for a long time.
Huynh, a fruit shop owner in HCMC, said that every time he received grapes imported from China, the boxes contain a small bottle of an odorous chemical that keeps the grapes fresh for nearly a month.
He admitted that when the fruits at his shop sell too slowly, he uses the chemicals to keep them fresh and save himself from losses.
Another HCMC fruit vendor named Chien said that vendors like him are afraid of eating produce treated with such chemicals.
"We will not dare eat the fruits we sell," he said.
Risk of poison
Doctor Nguyen Dang Nghia from the Southern Research Center for Soils, Fertilizers & Environment, said that injecting ethephon into the fruits can poison consumers.
The US Food and Drug Administration allows the use of ethephon for tomatoes, berries and apples but the US Environmental Protection Agency also said that the chemical, known scientifically as ethrel, is only safe to human bodies when no more than 0.05mg is absorbed per each kilogram of the body.
In Vietnam, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has recently given permits for the use of ethrel in rubber and cotton cultivation and for experimental use on rambutans.
Yet the ministry has not allowed any use of similar chemicals from China and to do so is illegal, Nghia said.