Decomposing cow tails found at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City's Thu Duc District on January 17. A Thanh Nien investigation shows that the trade in tainted meat is bustling in the southern metro.
In the early hours of January 18, dozens of motorbikes carrying pork and animal entrails stop near the Dong Nai Bridge at a section of the National Highway 1 that connects Dong Nai and Binh Duong provinces with Ho Chi Minh City.
Not so far away is a temporary checkpoint of HCMC's Thu Duc District Animal Health Quarantine Station.
After learning that the inspectors there are not going to move soon, the bikes follow a small road along the Dong Nai River. They hire boats to carry them across the river and reach a destination in HCMC where the meat is sold to local restaurants.
A driver says they have sent their people to scout the highway to warn them about any similar checkpoint.
Several such ruses are deployed in the transportation of meat from neighboring provinces as well as the northern region to HCMC because it is unchecked by animal health inspectors at the slaughterhouses as required. The meat can also be from sick animals or have decomposed after being carried long distances without adequate preservation facilities.
No matter what the condition of the tainted meat, they are sold to all kinds of eateries that "process" it to remove rotten odors if any before it is cooked and served to customers, a Thanh Nien investigation found.
Despite strong assertions about reducing the trade in tainted meat made by senior officials and the launch of the Food Safety Month, the illegal trade has picked up in HCMC as the Tet (Lunar New Year) festival draws near.
In a recent interview with the Hai Quan (Customs) newspaper, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Cao Duc Phat admitted that considerable amount of unhygienic food was being sold and consumed nationwide, with as much as 30 percent of meat containing microorganisms.
"We promise to try to reduce the proportion of food tainted with microorganisms (in the market) to below 10 percent [in 2013]," he said.
During its investigation, Thanh Nien found many empty land lots along the section of the National Highway 1 connecting Dong Nai and HCMC have become major transit points for the tainted meat trade.
In one of these land lots, at 2:30 a.m. on January 16, a bus from Nam Dinh Province in the north parked in Bien Hoa Town and five large sacks of meat were quickly transferred to a waiting truck.
Up to seven buses did the same thing at that spot within an hour. The buses then resumed their journey while several trucks carried the meat to deliver to customers in HCMC.
The Thu Duc Animal Quarantine Station is located on National Highway 1, the thoroughfare connecting HCMC and southeastern and northern provinces, and it deploys officials to set up temporary checkpoints along the road to inspect meat being imported to the city.
However, many drivers take a detour to avoid the inspectors or hire xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers to follow the inspectors and warn them.
Thanh Nien followed a seven-seater when it arrived at illegal slaughterhouses in Dong Nai at around 2 a.m. on January 9. After loading the meat, it headed to HCMC but stopped near Dong Nai Bridge and called some xe om drivers.
It only resumed the journey after being told that there was no checkpoint. The illegal meat was then sold to restaurants and small traders in Thu Duc District.
On January 14, Thu Duc animal health inspectors managed to detect and stop this car after being tipped by Thanh Nien.
The driver, Bui Van Tai, confessed that he was carrying more than 530 kilograms of pork, beef and chicken for a woman named Tran Thi Hai in Thu Duc District. The inspectors seized the meat that had no required certification and fined Tai after he failed to get Hai to the station.
The Thu Duc Animal Quarantine Station has busted 473 cases of illegal transportation of meat, chicken and eggs during the first 11 months of last year, seizing nearly 25,000 chicken and ducks and nearly 58,000 kilograms of meat.
On January 10, Thanh Nien followed a woman, identified only as Lua, who lives in Thu Duc's Hiep Binh Phuoc Ward and often buys meat from trucks that carry it from other provinces. She resells the meat to other people in HCMC, Thanh Nien found.
Lua gets to the Song Than overpass on the National Highway 1 at around 3 a.m. to buy the meat before selling to restaurants in HCMC and Binh Duong Province.
After several days, Thanh Nien found she sold the meat to restaurants that sell low-priced food to factory workers and students.
Tipped by Thanh Nien, Thu Duc Animal Health Station inspectors on January 18 raided Lua's house and seized 457 kilograms of cow bones and 41 kilograms of beef, all smelling bad. The inspectors will fine Lua for her violations of food safety laws.
Last week, Thanh Nien posed as an unemployed person to find work at a beef hotpot restaurant in Thu Duc District and found that it uses unidentified chemicals to "improve" the quality of tainted meat.
After soaking in a milky liquid for about ten minutes, many cow tails were no longer smelling. Then they boiled before being chopped to serve in hot pots.
"After being boiled, they look like fresh meat and no one can recognize that it is almost decomposed," a fellow employee at the restaurant told Thanh Nien.
About 22 percent of inspected food fails to meet safety and hygiene requirements, the Ministry of Health said in a statement Tuesday.
The inspected food included pork, vegetables, powdered chili, functional foods, powdered milk, alcohol and salted fruits.
Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long said the results were based on inspections conducted by central agencies in 31 cities and provinces on 2,284 food samples. However, he did not elaborate on the safety requirements.
Local inspectors in 48 cities and provinces tested 12,295 food samples recently and found 40 percent containing microorganisms and 20 percent containing E. Coliform bacteria, the ministry said.
Long admitted that consumers are consuming unsafe food and existing surveillance is not enough to minimize food poisoning risks.