Minister backs down over food scare

Confidence in food safety has hit a new low following revelations about the illegal use of drugs on livestock

Confidence in food safety has hit a new low following revelations about the illegal use of drugs in the rearing of livestock. Photo courtesy VNS.

Vietnam’s agriculture minister has been forced to apologise following a public outcry over a statement that played down a scandal over food safety.

Cao Duc Phat, the minister for agriculture and rural development, had told the National Assembly that most food in Vietnam was safe although people did not know it.

The remark led to a storm of protest, with people outraged that he could ignore recent revelations about the adulteration of meat and the use of dangerous chemicals in food production.

Mr Phat told the Tuoi Tre newspaper that he had been wrong to rely on just two surveys that did not reflect the overall situation.

He said he didn’t mean to imply that people were ignorant, merely that it was impossible for them to tell which food was healthy and which was contaminated.

The rare apology from a government minister underlines the extent of public alarm and anger over food safety. There is widespread, if unproven, suspicion that officials are negligent because they and their families have access to alternative and safe supplies of food.

The minister apologised following a public outcry

The minister apologised following a public outcry

Mr Phat’s original statement, on April 1, came despite frequent reports in the media that adulterated food products are one of the main reasons for an alarming rise in cancer rates in Vietnam.

Ordinary shoppers were infuriated by his remarks.

“Contaminated food is rampant in the markets,” said Nguyen Thi Dung, a school accountant in Ho Chi Minh City.

“If he went to market, he would never say that. I bet his family grow vegetables for themselves and have food imported from abroad,” she said.

Everything from vegetables, fruit and rice to shellfish, poultry and beef is suspect, she insisted.

Rampant misuse

The most recent scandals have focused on the feeding of chemicals to livestock to improve their growth rates and appearance. Many suspect that farmers keep uncontaminated products for themselves.

Local media have reported evidence about the rampant misuse of the drug, salbutamol, which is used to treat respiratory diseases.

Newspapers said that the drug was being diverted to unscrupulous farmers who use it to speed the growth of their pigs and cattle with dangerous consequences for consumers.

Of nine tonnes of the drug imported in 2015, a recent report said that only ten kilograms had been used for medical purposes.

Government research suspect

Vietnam is currently recording 110,000 new cases of cancer a year, with a very low survivability rate, and officials have acknowledged that contaminated food is one of the causes.

The government has brought in new legislation to control the use of such damaging substances, but many Vietnamese remain to be convinced that enforcement will be effective.

One former official who served as the vice-minister of aquaculture, Nguyen Thi Hong Minh, took issue with Mr Phat’s original claims.

She said that official analysis of food quality was suspect because some inspectors were known to take bribes and turn a blind eye to violations.

She complained that the ministry still manages food safety by analysing samples of products that provide inaccurate results. A better approach, used in many other countries, she said, is to regulate the growing and manufacturing processes much more closely.

By  Joseph Nguyen.