Most Vietnamese businesses in the sector currently lack a commitment to sustainable nutrition— to food that is both made and consumed sustainably. Far too many also show a distinctive lack of concern for public health.
They could care less about producing safe, high-quality, nutritious food that is accessible to all and possess little if any respect for the environment or helping to improve the nutrition and wellbeing of consumers.
In recent years, it has become all too common to hear about cases of unscrupulous actors in the sector using banned chemicals in fish, poultry and meat or putting excessive concentrations of pesticides in vegetables as part of a scam to boost their profits.
Leading market analysts say that practically none of the food sold in Vietnam is free of harmful chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides and little, if any, has a clear place of origin.
Nguyen Lan Dung, chair of the Vietnam Biotechnology Association, is one of those who last year said he doesn’t believe there are clean vegetables anywhere in the market in Vietnam.
Vietnamese farmers and others in the food sector import an estimated 4,000 differing types of pesticides containing thousands of harmful chemicals, noted Dung, adding that 90% of which come from China.
It is impossible to control how Vietnamese farmers use these dangerous chemicals, he underscored.
According to research conducted last year by the National Institute for Food Control, 40 out of 120 vegetables sampled were found to have excessive levels of chemical pesticides, and 455 out of 735 samples of fish, poultry and meat products tested were found to be unfit for human consumption.
The immoral practice of mixing ‘dirty’ food with safe produce to sell at a higher price is common in the marketplace, even in supermarkets and other places that naturally enjoy higher consumer confidence.
Virtually all consumers in Vietnam recognize the ‘food system is broken’ and this has resulted in a complete lack of consumer trust in domestic food products with a limited number of exceptions.
Every year 150,000 Vietnamese are diagnosed with cancer and roughly 75,000 die from the disease, noted Prof. Hoang Dinh Chau, director of the Hung Viet Cancer Hospital. He estimates that 35% of these cases result from eating unsafe food products.
Notably, he points out that the number of people who die nationwide from cancer caused by unsafe food has surpassed those who die from smoking related cancers.
It is not enough to fix the system that provides the food the population eats, say most leading experts at MARD— the country must also rebuild consumer trust in the food sector, so that consumers can be empowered to make healthier and more sustainable food choices every day.
Actors in the sector need to ensure that they are putting consumer health first and foremost when considering corporate policies towards issues like food labelling and ensure their activities encourage responsible consumption, so that healthier choices become easier choices for consumers.
No single organization can fundamentally change the country’s food system: collaboration, co-creation and joint ventures with a variety of stakeholders are key to a successful transformation.
Most notably – governments, non-governmental organizations and the food sector (including farmers, suppliers, retailers and consumers) need to be more progressive in their thinking and behaviours if food safety in Vietnam is to become a reality.
By mobilizing like-minded stakeholders to view the food system holistically from production to consumption, MARD says the national food sector can be completely overhauled and a new national food system developed.
One that provides consumers universal access to healthy, nutritious food, grown sustainably, while at the same time protecting the natural environment, improving livelihoods of producers and suppliers, and the national health of consumers as well.