By Son Nguyen in HCMC - The Saigon Times Daily
At one end, there are profiteers who want to make the most gains in farming and trading by using lean-meat additives to raise their pig herds, and harmful chemicals to turn their rotten meat products into fresh ones. At the other end are consumers whose health and safety are at stake due to the poisonous products they are eating days in days out. Between the two ends is the inaction of authorities, or their inability to control the chaotic market of toxic substances, or at least their confusion over how to deal with the problem. At length, it is by no means the win-win scenario when pig farmers now cannot sell their livestock as consumers are increasingly scared away from such foods.
Scandals broke out several weeks ago when local media reported the widespread use of the so-called lean-meat additive in pig farms. The additive, known as beta-agonist, helps shorten the rearing period from normally five months to only some three months to raise a pig to 100 kilos, meaning hefty profits for farm owners.
Such news stories have been ascertained when police and market monitors in HCMC a fortnight ago found a company named Hong Trien in Binh Tan District storing 1.4 tons of the lean-meat additive, said to be imported from China. Numerous other cases are uncovered thereafter, including 8.3 tons found at a warehouse of a company in Hung Yen Province, according to Tien Phong.
Quick tests conducted this week also found numerous frightening problems. Dong Nai Province’s Veterinary Department finds 20 samples testing positive for the additive, while Tien Giang reports one-third of 24 samples positive.
The truth is scary for consumers, as the additive can cause cancer for users. Immediately after the findings, pork prices have plummeted across the country, bringing huge losses for pig farmers. Nguyen Xuan Duong, deputy director of the Husbandry Department under the agriculture ministry, estimates in Tuoi Tre that the pork price fall triggered by the lean-meat additive causes hefty losses totaling up to VND3 trillion, or some US$150 million, to pig farmers.
But the lean-meat additive is just a small part of the whole picture on food safety in the country.
Besides the banned herbicide trifluralin just found in a type of freshwater fish in HCMC, and other chemical residues in various types of vegetables this week, local media reports that huge volumes of rotten meat, especially internal organs including intestines of animals, are being widely distributed in the country.
Tuoi Tre in its their investigative reporting shows how huge loads of rotten meat products are transported into HCMC each day, and are converted into fresh meat after being soaked into chemicals hazardous to human health. In an earlier report, Thanh Nien said perished internal organs and meat were reprocessed into hot dogs and other popular products for sale in the city and elsewhere.
The news website Vnexpress says rotten and stinking meat looks quite fresh after being soaked in chemical water for some 20 minutes. It is all the more dangerous that such chemicals, especially a whitening powder known as sodium sulphate (NA2SO4), is widely available in the country. Nguyen Duy Thinh at the Hanoi Polytechnic University says on Vnexpress this chemical is for industrial use only, and is by no means allowed in foods as it can cause cancers.
But the most striking question now is why such substances can freely flow in the market, and how competent agencies are doing their job.
After the lean-meat additive was found at Hong Trien Company in HCMC, Tuoi Tre has backtracked the trade, and reveals that it has been imported via formal channels from China.
Invoices from the company and customs records show that the company imported three tons of the substance commercially known as Gold Protein Peptide (SSI) and sold the substance to pig farms in Dong Nai, Tien Giang and Long An provinces. To all people’s surprise, the item is allowed for import under a “list of animal feed and materials” signed by deputy minister of agriculture Bui Ba Bong in 2006. As the item is included in the list, customs offices do not require import permits, and traders simply have to fulfill customs clearance procedures.
Explaining the clumsy situation, Nguyen Xuan Duong, deputy director of the Husbandry Department under the agriculture ministry, says that when the list of imports was approved, this product did not contain lean-meat additives. It is noted that officials of the agriculture ministry have earlier claimed that using and trading in lean-meat additives constitute crimes.
In addition, ministries are even at odds over lean-meat additives.
While the agriculture ministry considers the lean-meat additive beta-agonist as a poisonous substance, the health ministry still sees it a pharmaceutical component that can be accepted at a certain level in meat, according to Sai Gon Tiep Thi. State agencies are still owing a lot of answers to the people’s questions, including the permissible level of certain chemicals in food products, and whether such chemicals are being used in other livestock and poultry farms, says the paper.
Like previous food safety scandals, such as the cancer-causing soybean sauce and the melamine-tainted milk, the scenario is being repeated regarding lean-meat additives in farming and chemicals for rotten meat. Under that scenario, profiteers make illegal gains until the practices are uncovered by local media, and then consumers boycott products, resulting in huge damages for local production and the economy, says Sai Gon Tiep Thi. Competent State agencies must also be blamed due to their loose management that allows for a situation where one man’s meat is another man’s poison.