The hand that feeds is rotten

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Eating in Vietnam seems suicidal as relevant authorities are unable to control persistent bacteria, mold and deadly chemical contamination

People eating at a roadside eatery in the old quarter of Hanoi. Concerns over food safety are increasing ahead of the Tet holidays as officials urge more actions to ensure food safety. PHOTO: AFP

Pham Thi Lan's family has ten years' experience making rice noodles. They can make white and shiny noodles that do not go rancid thanks to Vietnamese noodle-makers' long-term secret: banned chemicals.

"If there is no borax and anti-rotting substance, the noodles will smell bad in a few hours," she said. "Even before it smells, people would not buy the noodle because it has a natural sour taste."

The practice of using banned chemicals in food is common in Vietnam amid lax surveillance by relevant authorities, prompting many consumers to fear for their health as the Tet (Vietnam's Lunar New Year) holiday approaches and giant feasts are expected almost every day.

Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien told a food safety teleconference on January 2 that food poisoning is just the tip of the iceberg.

"The main [problem] is chronic poisoning that will affect the whole society.

"Now, [people] go to the market without knowing what to eat, what to buy. To go without eating is deadly but to eat now is to fear a slow death," she said.

Tien listed a number of common Tet foods that are risky and may contain dangerous chemicals, including alcohol with methanol, soft drinks with unclean water and dangerous chemicals in cookies, jams, sweets, pork rolls, sausages and pork gloss.

Truong Thi Huong, a housewife in Ho Chi Minh City, said going to the market has become a confusing job full of headaches.

"Recently, I bought a piece of pork and fried it. Finally, I had to throw it away after the piece of meat unusually produced water and shrunk significantly. Some vegetable also got rotten shortly after buying even though I did not wash them," she said.

"It is really worrisome. We can't live without eating. But eating is anxiety," Huong added.

Molds, bacteria, dangerous chemicals


April 12: 328 people had food poisoning after attending a wedding party at the house of Quang Van Uan in Son La Province's eponymous town. Foods supplied include pork, beef, chicken and vegetables and home-made alcohol.

October 10: More than 600 workers of Wondo Vina Company in Tien Giang Province's Cho Gao District were hospitalized with food poisoning after having lunch supplied at the company.

October 16-18: Around 382 people at Quang Tri Province's Huong Hoa District were hospitalized for food poisoning. Investigations found all had eaten sandwiches from the Quang Trung bakery in the district's Khe Sanh Town.

October 17-18: Around 200 workers of at Lien Phat Shoes Factory in Binh Duong Province's Song Thanh Industrial Park were hospitalized with symptoms of nausea, vomiting and fainting. All had a VND11,000 (US$0.5) meal at the company supplied by a local food caterer on the afternoon of October 17.

According to the Food Safety Administration, its agencies collected around 24,000 food samples nationwide for testing last year, of which 45 percent contained mold.

More than a fourth of the samples contained Coliform bacteria, 8.4 percent contained borax and 7.9 percent had methanol.

More than 5,100 food facilities do not meet safety requirements and the highest number of cases were found in Hanoi and HCMC.

Phan Xuan Thao, director of the HCMC Animal Health Department, said his agency has uncovered an increasing number of cases of smuggled meat and livestock over the past weeks as Tet is drawing near and the demand for food material for processing is rising.

City dwellers consume more than 10,000 pigs, 200 cows and 76,000 chickens every day, of which 80 percent are imported from other provinces, he said.

On December 18, the city's health inspectors raided a store in Binh Chanh District and found 12 tons of beef exceeding its expiry date by two years.

On December 24, they stopped a 16-seater on Thu Duc District's Hanoi Highway and found Pham Quoc Huy carrying dead pigs weighing 550 kilograms in total. The inspectors identified that the pigs had died several days earlier before being slaughtered and smuggled from Dong Nai into HCMC.

Following information that noodle samples in Vietnam tested positive for oxalic acid, which can cause kidney failure by helping form kidney stones, the central Food Safety Administration instructed a large scale inspection last month.

The agency reported on December 19 that they found the banned chemical in 58 of 263 rice product and vegetable samples.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture and Fishery Quality Control has tested chicken samples in several northern cities and provinces and found several banned chemicals, including campylobacter a bacteria causing diarrhea and chloramphenicol and furazolidon. 

Broken trust

Many housewives said they had moved from traditional markets to supermarkets more than a decade ago, assuming that the latter's products were safer.

However, their assumption has been proven wrong as more and more cases of tainted foods have been detected at supermarkets over the past several years.

On January 3, Hanoi health inspectors inspected the BigC and Ocean Mart Trung Hoa and found several violations of food safety regulations.

At BigC, inspectors found 11 kinds of vegetables without the required labels indicating their origins.

Meanwhile, Ocean Mart Trung Hoa was found with the same violations and some products were labeled incorrectly or had no expiry dates.

In HCMC, the city authorities in November fined Metro Cash&Carry Vietnam for violations in environmental protection and selling meat contaminated with bacteria, according to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

Poisoning, cancer

According to Dr. Nguyen Thi Nguyet of the Pasteur Institute in HCMC, unsafe food can easily cause mass poisoning at schools and factories that supply meals.

Of 973 samples of foods - from meats to fisheries, eggs and grains - 313 samples did not meet microorganism requirements as stipulated by the health ministry.

Nguyet said 40 percent of vegetables, 40 percent of fisheries and 30 percent of meat products had excessive harmful microorganisms.

Huynh Cong Hung, a HCMC legislator, said unsafe food is one of the reasons for the increasing number of cancer cases in the city, with an annual increase of 10 percent on average.

According to the HCMC Cancer Association, city hospitals detected 33,000 cases of cancer between 2007 and 2011.

Huynh Le Thai Hoa, director of the HCMC Food Safety Agency, said many small enterprises are using banned chemicals in food for profit.

Nguyen Thi Minh, deputy minister of finance, said food safety has become an irritating issue, as more violations have been detected ahead of Tet.

"We should invest more money and effort for food safety. I was told that many people have contracted diseases, including cancer, which are believed to be a result of harmful chemical consumption," she said.

Minh said there should be strict punishment against violations instead of a slap on the wrist by current regulations.

"The act of poisoning people should face stricter measures, including criminal punishment," she said.


Fake dried beef made from rotten pork

Ho Chi Minh City police in September raided Thanh Ly Company in Binh Tan District and found 6.5 tons of fake dried beef and 3.5 tons of rotten pork. Company director Nguyen Thi Thanh Ly was unable to produce any documents for the origin of the meat and chemicals and seasonings used to turn pork into "dried beef".

Police said the company distributes the product mostly in HCMC, Hanoi and Thua Thien-Hue.

Rice noodle containing banned bleaching and brightening chemicals

In August, Ho Chi Minh City food safety authorities published a list of local rice noodle producers identified as using dangerous and banned chemicals for bleaching and brightening. The city Food Safety and Hygiene Department said it had identified six samples from three producers contaminated with optical brighteners used in detergents and cleaners known commercially as tinopal, and oxalic acid used in bleaches.

Both substances are banned from food products, according to Vietnamese regulations, while some samples contained excessive amounts of the preservative sodium sulfite.

Fermented pork made from rotten meat

In May, police in the northern province of Thanh Hoa raided a local facility and seized 2.5 tons of pig skin. The owner of the facility, which makes fermented pork and pork rolls, was unable to produce required documents, including related contracts, invoices and food safety certificates.

The owner confessed he bought the consignment in Nam Dinh Province in December 2012 and had been keeping it at the store since. He also sold about 50 kg of the meat to another facility in Thanh Hoa Town to make fermented pork.

Ice tea, sugarcane juice contaminated with bacteria, heavy metals

The Vietnam Institute of Dietary Supplements in July announced it found Coliform bacteria and excessive amounts of cadmium, lead and mercury in all nine samples of ice tea, green tea, sugarcane juice and other drinks sold on the street.

Meanwhile, HCMC Food Safety Agency also found bacteria and fungi in sugarcane juice and other common street drinks.

Deadly alcohol made from banned methanol

On December 2-7, six people died and 9 others were hospitalized after drinking an alcohol product made by the 29 Hanoi Export and Import Company. Subsequent tests found it contained from 80-98 percent methanol, which is banned for use in food.

The company's products were recalled and its director, Nguyen Duy Vuong and two employees were arrested for investigations. 

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