Rancid meat wagons

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Coaches in and around Ho Chi Minh City are regularly caught transporting rancid meat and experts say Vietnam may be a new dumping ground for other countries' discarded animal products.

Authorities say bus owners and drivers are increasingly taking advantage of free space in their vehicles by hiring it out transport rotten meat, mostly to Ho Chi Minh City, the country's largest market.

Rotten food, including animal viscera, chicken feet, pig's trotters and cow tails, has recently been found being illegally transported on almost every kind of passenger vehicle from 12-seater vans to "luxury" coaches, and even ambulances.

Health risks

Once soaked in spices and cooked, rotten meat is hard to spot. They often make their way into food shops and restaurants: cow tails are usually cooked in lau (hot pot), and the trotters of pig, cow and buffalo are often cooked to produce broth, while chicken feet and animal viscera can be used to make various dishes.

Dr. Tran Van Ky, a food safety expert, said Vietnamese authorities should find out exactly where each batch of bad meat and other products comes from.

"Vietnam is becoming a dumping ground for some countries to export their discarded products like animal viscera, feet and hooves."

"Greedy restaurant owners will use bleach and chemical substances to make the products clean and non-stinky, and later use a large quantity of food additives, coloring and spices to turn the rotten meat into delicious dishes."

Experts said even if meats and other products are not rotten, it is risky to use them unless they are checked by animal quarantine stations.

The products may come from animals with diseases like anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, blue ear disease or swine flu, or infected with E.coli and other bacteria.

Products not transported or stored properly can easily become rotten, produce toxic substances and transmit pathogens to humans.

Dr. Nguyen Xuan Mai, former deputy chief of the HCMC Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, said rotten meat, viscera and trotters can be made into fertilizers but should never be eaten by humans.

"Animal viscera can be extremely harmful once they decay, because protein disintegrates and produces toxic substances.

"For instance, the liver the body's main cleansing organ handles toxins when a body is alive. Imagine how many toxic substances are released when the liver is rotten."

MINISTRY TO PROBE ROTTEN CHICKEN FEET IMPORT

A large quantity of rotten chicken feet has been cleared at Hai Phong port despite city animal health authorities' recommendation to destroy or re-export it, but customs officials claim it happened before they received the notification.

The consignment of 108 tons was imported by Quang Ninh Aquatic Products Import-Export Processing Company from India in two different batches on September 1 and 10.

The Animal Health Agency Zone 2, which tests all imported meats and live animals, found the chicken feet did not have labels, production dates, or information about origin.

Worse still, it was decaying and contained higher levels of microorganisms than permitted.

The agency concluded the product was not safe for human consumption and informed Hai Phong customs and the importer on September 23 and October 5.

It urged customs to instruct the importer to destroy or re-export the consignment.

But by then it was too late and customs had cleared it.

An animal health official, who wanted to remain unnamed, said it was unclear if the chicken feet had been cleared before or after the test results had been sent.

Mac Van Nguyen, a customs official, said it had been transported out of the port before the documents had arrived from the animal health agency.

But animal health officials said the customs officials should have waited for the test results before clearance.

Regulations require customs to wait until the animal health agency certifies that imported meats are safe for consumption before clearing them and it is not clear why the regulation was not followed in this case.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is investigating to find out who is at fault.

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