Regulations on the trade and processing of dog meat have been awaiting government action for over a year, according to a Ho Chi Minh City animal health official.
In the meantime, the popular food item continues to pose grave public health risks.
"We are not encouraging dog meat consumption but we need regulations to ensure food safety for the current situation [dog meat demand]," Phan Xuan Thao, head of HCMC Animal Health Agency, told Thanh Nien Weekly on July 19.
A survey conducted last year by Thao's agency identified around 175 restaurants and eateries in HCMC that served dog meat daily. At that time, the agency found up to 350 dogs were being slaughtered per day to meet city demand.
Early last year, the city's Animal Health Agency produced draft regulations that would require strict inspections of dog processing - from the farming to the slaughtering of the animals. According to Thao, the regulations also contained stipulations on the trade of the meat.
"[Dogs killed for human consumption] must have a clear origin," Thao said. "They must be vaccinated against rabies and other diseases and quarantined 15 days before being slaughtered," he said.
While the regulations await action from central authorities, the industry remains largely unregulated.
In Vietnam, dog meat has long been considered a tasty drinking food with traditional health properties. A study conducted by a Thai researcher from
Chulalonkorn University estimated that as many as 30,000 dogs are trafficked from Thailand to Vietnam every month along a single road.
At the moment, Vietnamese laws only require that dogs slaughtered for consumption have a certificate of origin and proof of rabies vaccination.
However, a 2007 study by the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology showed that 20 percent of sick dogs tested in Hanoi area slaughterhouses tested positive for rabies.
Meanwhile, the city's enforcement wing bears a heavy load.
Thao and his officials are only permitted to inspect vaccination certificates.
Inspectors at the year-old HCMC Food Safety Agency have the authority to seize dog meat from slaughterhouses and restaurants if the owners fail to produce certificates of origin. Officials from the Food Safety Agency declined to comment on their capacity or status.
Thao said the fledgling force is restructuring to more effectively enforce existing regulations.
The trafficking of Thai dogs into Vietnam appears to be a growing problem for the country, as demand for dog continues to rise. Last year, the Global Post reported that "Hanoi's leftover Thai dogs were once re-sold in China, according to researcher Thanyathip Sipana, but now Vietnamese consumption leaves little for the Chinese."
Meanwhile, at home, the thriving trade in the meat is only occasionally stymied by health raids which are usually prompted by outbreaks of communicable disease.
Early this month, officials from the Hanoi Department of Health closed dozens of dog restaurants and slaughterhouses in Hoai Duc and Ha Dong districts after samples of dog meat tested positive for cholera.
In response to last year's demand for controls, the city Agriculture Department instructed HCMC's Animal Health Agency to draft regulations on dog meat trading. The draft proposal has been submitted to the central Department of Animal Health twice in the last year and the issue continues to be batted around like a hot potato.
In February 2009, the central Department of Animal Health declined to enact national regulations on the trade, thus shifting the onus of approving the regulations back onto the HCMC People's Committee the city's municipal administration.
Seven months later, in September 2009, city officials asked Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to issue nationwide regulations on trading and slaughtering dogs. The problem is too large to be managed by city officials, they intimated. This time, city officials recommended that the ministry consider limiting or banning dog meat altogether.
The ministry told Thanh Nien Weekly that they have re-submitted the request to the central Department of Animal Health the very organization that declined to establish national regulations in the first place.
Thao says that the city has not received any feedback from the ministry so far and that an outright ban on dog meat would be unfeasible due to existing demand. He further indicated that such a ban could exacerbate smuggling, thus complicating the prospect of effective food safety management.
"I think the ministry and department [of animal health] were afraid that [a decision] would draw opposition from international organizations for human health and animal protection," he said.
Indeed, one such organization has publicly taken credit for defeating the measure.
Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), an international nonprofit organization, claims to have been instrumental in the central government's decision not to enact the regulations.
AAF's website claims that the Vietnamese government solicited their opinion in February of 2009 on a plan to extend existing standards for the slaughter of "cattle, pigs and chickens" to dogs. After writing an opinion denouncing the measure, they claim, the government relented.
"Vietnam Central Department of Animal Health (DAH) issued an official directive stating that they would not enact legislation designed to regulate the processing of dog meat for human consumption," AAF stated in a release posted on their website.
The release quotes the organization's Vietnam Director, Tuan Bendixsen, as saying that individual localities can still attempt to enact their own regulations. "Usually they will not go against the Central Government's directive," he says in the release. "I'm now looking at getting the Central Government to officially ban it [dog eating] instead of just not enacting regulation."