Vietnam Still Struggling With Unsafe Food


New cases of food poisoning across the country have once again highlighted the need for better food safety management in Vietnam.

On July 29, a group of tourists from Laos were rushed to a hospital with food poisoning after having dinner at a restaurant in Da Nang.

As many as 26 tourists were sent to the emergency room where doctors treated them for stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dizziness; 20 more tourists from the same group were admitted the following day suffering from the same symptoms.

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Four of the victims were children, and the youngest was just two years old.

On August 1, local authorities fined the N&M Restaurant VND25 million (US$1,100), but they were unable to collect samples of the food that allegedly caused the poisoning.

This was the second case of mass food poisoning reported in the central city this year.

The case prompted Da Nang’s health department to establish a hotline to provide information to diners about restaurants and eateries that have alleged food safety issues.

At least a dozen of food poisoning cases have been reported this year across the country, which have affected both locals and foreigners.

A Major Concern

A government report delivered to a meeting of the National Assembly, Vietnam's top legislature, on June 5 said that 86 percent of Vietnamese people were concerned about food safety.

More than a fifth of the three million businesses involved in the food industry had committed safety violations, with more than 1,700 food poisoning cases killing 164 people in the past five years, the report said.

The World Bank also wrote in a Vietnamese food safety report released on March 27 that food safety is a major concern for the public, and produces high levels of anxiety each time there is a high-profile food safety incident.

Vietnam’s reputation amongst its trading partners as a major food exporter is vulnerable, as trade statistics show levels of contamination, according to the report.

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Food-borne illnesses are notoriously difficult to assess in any country, but the level of contamination found in Vietnamese food for domestic consumption justifies public and trade concerns, it stated.

The report found that the primary cause of food-borne illnesses come from bacterial contamination, rather than from chemicals, which could be prevented by better levels of hygiene throughout the production chain.

World Bank statistics showed that 80 percent of pork and 85 percent of vegetables are mostly sold in wet markets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, while 76 percent of pork is slaughtered in small and dirty facilities.

It said that the most prevalent microbiological hazard in pork in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is salmonella, with the bacteria found in 30 percent of the pork samples taken at slaughterhouses, and 40 percent of the pork found on sale at local markets.

According to the report, regular use of agricultural products such as antibiotics, pesticides and chemical fertilisers, poorly-regulated or illegal imports, lack of traceability and cross-contamination are also important factors to improve; the biggest challenge, however, lies in changing the growing and raising practices of the vast numbers of small farmers.

Ineffective Management

According to VnExpress, the Vietnamese government has been urged to put food safety higher on the national agenda and to issue policies strong enough to encourage the production and supply of safe food.

The World Bank said that Vietnam has a modern food safety regulatory framework with foundations in place for further improving food safety performance and outcomes, but much more could be done to make it result-focused and risk-based.

The Food Safety Law, adopted in 2010, has regulations on the management of many kinds of foods, including street food. But a lack of effective enforcement has done little to reduce the number of food safety and hygiene issues.

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Moreover, overlaps in food safety management have frustrated many in the industry.

VNExpress quoted a seafood store owner as saying, “There are inspection teams from the health and agricultural sectors. Then there are teams from the ward, district and even inter-agency teams from a municipal level. Why can't these teams share their test results to save costs and cut the onerous red tape?”

Under new food safety laws revised in July, the maximum punishment for food poisoning and other food safety violations in Vietnam was raised from 5 to 20 years in prison. Fines were also increased tenfold to VND500 million (US$22,425).

However, as yet no criminal punishment has been given to food safety violators.

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