Pig suppliers in the southern province of Dong Nai, the country’s biggest source of pork, fill up the animals with water to increase their weight before sending them to slaughterhouses.
A middleman named Q. said this trick has become common in the business.
“If you don’t use this water trick, you cannot compete and will go bankrupt in a few months,” he told a Thanh Nien correspondent who was carrying out a sting operation disguised as a rookie supplier seeking to learn.
Q. took the reporter to a place in Trang Bom District where more than 100 pigs are pumped with water every day before being sent to neighboring Ho Chi Minh City.
Around 50 pigs were lined up in a pigsty when the reporter arrived.
Plastic buckets hung above the sty with pipes jutting out of their bottom.
Some workers then pushed the pipes into the pigs’ mouth.
The animals had to be trussed up and their mouths tied shut so that the pipes remained in place. The more they thrashed about, the tighter the ropes became.
Some of the animals had to be knocked out before being tied.
Once the pipes were in place, the workers poured water into the buckets. They used groundwater from private wells.
There were valves to adjust the flow of water depending on the animal’s size.
Each pig was pumped for around 10 minutes before the pipe was withdrawn.
Some of them collapsed and vomited water after the pipes were removed.
The pumping is repeated at least three times in a few hours before the pigs are delivered to the abattoirs.
There are many such places around the cemetery in Bien Hoa, the provincial capital. Some are run by pig farmers themselves but most belong to agents.
“Everyone has to pump up their pigs,” Q. said.
A Dong Nai pig farmer, who asked not to be named, said meat from a pumped-up pig feels wetter, and it is pale if too much water is used.
The pork starts dripping three to four hours after being butchered and releases a lot more water when cooked than normal pork, he said.
Profit at consumers’ expense
The owner of a large pig farm in the province, who wanted to be identified only as V., said a pig pumped with water gains four to five kilograms and thus fetches an extra VND240,000-300,000 (US$11,30-14.12) at current prices.
“It’s super profitable.”
V. said the meat fetches huge profits even if sold at less than the average price.
Not everyone wants to pump up their pigs, but they would lose out if they don’t, he said.
Dr. Tran Van Ky, a food safety expert, said the water used in the process is usually not clean.
Microorganisms, chemicals, and heavy metals in the water are absorbed into the meat and sicken people who eat it, he said.
The pollutants cause cancer and other diseases if they accumulate beyond a certain level, he said.
Insiders said the water used has high alum content that is easily absorbed and stays in the meat.
Another pumping place, which Q. called “one of the biggest” in Dong Nai, has concrete walls nearly three meters high around an area of 1,000 square meters.
"The pigs squeal to the sky, you cannot hide it. But if you know your way around (officials), you’ll survive” -- a Dong Nai pig dealer named Q. said about the rampant practice of pumping water into pigs' stomach to increase their weight
Few houses can be spotted around, but trucks kept coming to unload pigs.
Q. said: “The station pumps around 500-600 pigs a day, and a thousand on busy days. It’s safer to operate far from residential areas.”
If people live in the vicinity, they would know because the animals squeal loudly when being pumped up.
But he suggested that bribes keep officials away.
“The pigs squeal to the sky, you cannot hide it. But if you know your way around, you’ll survive.”
Those who fail to take care of officials see their operations shut down immediately, he said.
Most agents in Dong Nai seem to known their way since a provincial market manager told Thanh Nien that only six pumped-up pigs have been caught this year and the people involved were fined VND11 million.
Nguyen Van Quang, head of the Dong Nai Department of Animal Health, said his agency depends on reports from local officials.
If there is no information from them about pigs being filled with water somewhere, it would know nothing, he claimed.
Mai Tan Tai, chairman of a commune in Bien Hoa, said farming activities in the area are checked regularly and carefully.
But after Thanh Nien’s exposé they would look even closer now, he said.
Nguyen Tri Cong, chairman of the Dong Nai Breeding Association, said the unhealthy practice has got the province’s suppliers a bad name, especially among consumers.
An unidentified farmer said pigs have been pumped up with water for years now.
“Those playing fair have had to scale down their business, and others had to go with the flow to survive.
“Everyone knows well how rampant the activity is, only officials don’t.”
Dong Nai’s pigs made national headlines in 2012 after the media exposed the use of steroids like clenbuterol and salbutamol to increase their weight.