Agricultural authorities in a southern Vietnamese province have asked police to investigate the use of an illegal chemical to produce super-heavy pigs, while inspectors have been accused of allowing culprits to continue.
Two animal drug stores in Dong Nai Province, a major pig supplier to slaughterhouses in neighboring Ho Chi Minh City, temporarily had their licenses revoked for reportedly selling the banned growth-promoting agent.
The punishing actions were made following a series of reports by Thanh Nien last week, which said the carcinogen keeps water in the animal's body and swells its muscle fibers.
An experienced pig dealer in Dong Nai said a pig gains 1.5-2 kilograms a day when the chemical is used. It is usually used for a 15-day period, he said.
"All pig breeders use the super-heavy chemical, from small households to large farms," said the dealer who asked to be identified only as T. He said he once used the chemical as well, but quit after finding out it was harmful to humans.
"Since it's become known that the chemical is harmful to humans, people just use it more secretly."
He said the chemical has to be used at the right time so that the pigs are ready to be sold in no more than two weeks.
"Otherwise, they will just collapse since the chemical makes their bones fragile enough to break when they walk around," T. said.
Ulcerations will also appear on the body of the animal, he said.
According to several pig dealers, the substance is smuggled from China at VND10 million (US$500) a kilogram. It is mixed with animal feed powder at a 1:50 ratio before being sold to farmers at VND500,000 a kilogram, earning sellers a good profit of VND15 million a kilo.
The dealers said the chemical is not only popular in Dong Nai, but in Ho Chi Minh City as well.
Tests conducted by the HCMC Animal Health Department found the substance contains a Î²- agonist growth-promoting agent.
Dr. Tran Van Ky of the southern branch of the Vietnam Association of Food Safety Technology said eating pork containing the chemical will increase the heart rate and blood pressure, causing digestive disorders and various other diseases.
Popular forms of the agent are clenbuterol and salbutamol, which are used to treat asthma and lung conditions, but must be with care.
Nguyen Xuan Duong, deputy head of the Husbandry Department at Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the chemical made headlines in 2007 when some animal feed factories were found adding the substance to their products.
The situation cooled down over the next two years, or at least appeared to, as authorities beefed up surveillance.
But it returned in 2011 with surging demand, Duong said.
"It's difficult to control the use of banned substances in husbandry. The problem cannot be solved quickly by a single agency," he said.
While it is taking time for the ministry to solve the problem, consumers are double cheated as local animal health officials are allowing Dong Nai slaughterhouses to deal in pigs that have ingested the chemical.
An unnamed worker at a slaughter house in the province's capital town Bien Hoa said workers stamp pigs as safe without checking them and "the animal health guys just come so they're present. They don't bother to check anything."
Dong Nai Animal Health Department has rebuked two animal health officials stationed at the slaughterhouse and others involved in skipping real inspections.
A local reader, Quynh Nhu, wrote to Thanh Nien after the incident that "Vietnam's laws are yet to include strong punishment for unethical businesses, or irresponsible officials, for whom there's always just a rebuke."
Meanwhile Lam Thi Hieu, a local in Dong Nai, said "People do not know what to believe anymore, when those representing the government and getting paid with people's tax money are being so irresponsible."
Experts recommend that anyone buying pork watch for cuts of meat in which the layer of fat between the skin and muscle is super-thin, as this occurs in pigs treated with the chemical that swells muscles and thins the fat.