Vietnam authorities toss toxic Chinese potatoes

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Potatoes imported from China are dumped in Da Lat Saturday after being found to contain impermissibly high levels of a toxic insecticide. Photo by Lam Vien, Thanh Nien News

Authorities in the Central Highlands town of Da Lat on Saturday threw away of 26 tons of pink potatoes from China after samples tested positive for excessive levels of a toxic insecticide.

Tests on samples conducted on June 10 taken from the storage facility of local trader Nguyen Thi Nguyet found the amount of Chlorpyrifos, a popular organophosphate insecticide, was 16 times higher than the permitted level.

Chlorpyrifos, introduced by Dow Chemical Company, is said to be only moderately toxic to humans. Chronic exposure, however, has been linked to neurological problems, developmental disorders, autoimmune disorders, while exposure during pregnancy is known to nretard the mental development of unborn children.

The potatoes were disposed of at the town garbage dump while Nguyet, 44, was fined VND3.5 million (US$167) for violating food safety regulations.

Officials found 52 tons of gold and pink potatoes during their inspection, while Nguyet said she had already sold 30 tons to markets in Ho Chi Minh City.

Agriculture officials from Lam Dong Province, famous for its produce, have asked their counterparts in the southern metro to test potatoes at local wholesale markets.

Nguyet managed to produce official import documents as well as a safety certificate issued on May 20 by Lao Cai Province quarantine officials at the Chinese border.

The papers showed that the potatoes were imported for nearly US$0.16 a kilogram.

Da Lat authorities said the bust of Nguyet's storage marks a start of new campaign for Da Lat to regain the fame of its produce.

Duong Ngoc Duc, an economic official from Da Lat, said many vendors have made Chinese potatoes appear to have come from Da Lat, a process which has backfired, giving local products a dubious reputation for threatening people's health.

Duc said Da Lat potatoes are only available in large quantities between December and May, but that between 20 and 30 tons of potatoes are transported to HCMC every day.

"It makes no sense," he was quoted by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper as saying.

Duc said local authorities have kept a close watch on Nguyet for two years and noticed that she has been importing hundreds of tons of potatoes from China every year, reselling them to local vendors who would remove their black soil, covering the potatoes with Da Lat's typically red soil to make them look like they were locally planted and thus, capable of fetching five times the price as their Chinese counterparts.

"It would be hard for the average person to differentiate Chinese potatoes from Da Lat ones," he said.

Duong Minh Son, manager of a Da Lat agriculture produce market, said he has noticed vendors disguise the potatoes with red soil at the market and that all he could do was beg them to stop.

"There are no regulations that specifically forbid the practice," Son said.

He said some vendors told him their customers in HCMC asked them to add the red soil, and sometimes they make the potatoes even harder to distinguish by mixing those from China in with ones from Da Lat.

Some Da Lat vendors scratch the potatoes as Da Lat potatoes are known for having a thin skin, which tears easily.

Last month a wholesale market in District 8 in the outskirts of HCMC banned traders from selling Chinese ginger after tests found high levels of adicarb, a highly poisonous carbamate pesticide, in a ginger sample taken from the market.

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