HANOI (AFP) — A frown crosses the face of Nguyen Thi Huong as she peruses the fresh produce at a Vietnamese market -- a series of food scandals has left her worried about just what is safe for her family to eat.
Vietnamese consumers have been hit by a string of bad news, with dangerous pesticides found on fruit and vegetables, cancer-causing chemicals in soy sauce and formaldehyde in the national dish, pho noodle soup.
"What can I buy now?" the 55-year-old housewife said, scanning the farm produce, tofu and meats at Hanoi's bustling Xanh market. "All the food looks fresh and good, but I can't be sure it's safe for my family."
Consumers in Vietnam, a country of 84 million people, have long been proud of their delicious and healthy cuisine, typically high in greens and low in fat and prepared with a wide variety of market-fresh ingredients.
Early each morning, thousands of farmers travel by truck, moped or bicycle to deliver fresh vegetables, poultry products and meat from outlying farms to the inner city areas of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
But as Vietnam is turning from a mainly agrarian country, where three quarters of people are farmers, into a more industrialised and market-driven economy, food scares blamed on intense agrochemical use have risen sharply.
A recent survey by the state-run Plant Protection Department found pesticides on 30 to 60 percent of the vegetables tested in Hanoi markets, including substances that are banned in Vietnam and other countries.
One of them was the insecticide metamidophos, which has been linked to health problems in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and the United States.
Many farmers in Vietnam and neighbouring China use high doses of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost production in a cut-throat market where margins are slim, even though many know the substances pose health risks.
"My family doesn't eat the vegetables I sell in the market every day," admitted Nguyen Thi Nhuong, a stall-owner who sells produce she grows in Thanh Tri district outside the capital Hanoi.
"We have set aside a small part of our garden for vegetables that grow naturally for our daily use. We are afraid the chemicals will harm our health."
Health scandals have also hit other foods in Vietnam, where an increasingly aggressive media is highlighting food scandals, leaving many people scared and unsure what, if anything, is still safe to eat.
In June, consumers boycotted domestically-made soy sauce after health authorities found levels of 3MPCD -- a flavour booster that may cause cancer after prolonged consumption -- 10 to 100 times above legal limits.
"Health agencies have known that Vietnamese soy sauce, the country's second most popular sauce after fish sauce, has been chock full of cancer agents since at least 2001," thundered the Thanh Nien daily. "Why didn't anyone tell us?"
The paper pointed out that no fewer than 11 state agencies were responsible for food safety, and that none of them took responsibility for the contaminations.
Vietnam's consumers are used to trouble. Past scandals have focused on toxins in popular foods -- formaldehyde in pho noodle soup, borax in traditional cakes and sausages, and dangerous preservatives in seafood.
According to state-run Vietnam Television, every year Vietnam reports 250 to 500 cases of food poisoning that sicken up to 10,000 people, although the unreported figure is almost certain to be far higher.
In the first six months of the year, the Health Ministry said 25 people had died of food poisoning, and the Vietnam Cancer Association blames one third of the country's 150,000 annual cancer cases on tainted food.
Vietnam bans many toxic substances, but authorities in the communist nation admit that monitoring and enforcement are weak.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in August declared the health ministry the top authority on food safety, to end the practice of overlapping ministries and authorities issuing conflicting reports on food safety.
Two inspection teams will be set up on a pilot basis in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in the near future, he said on the official government website.
Authorities have ordered food producers to abide by state guidelines, and the government has dabbled in organic farming, so far a limited experiment.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently worked on a pilot project to ween Mekong Delta rice farmers off pesticides by using an electric device to check the migrations of brown plant hoppers, a major pest.
The project found that if farmers planted rice immediately after the infestations, the crops grew strong enough to resist the next hopper infestation three weeks later -- without the use of pesticides.
The strategy produced a healthy crop and good yields, said the FAO, even as other farmers sprayed their fields eight times or more and inadvertently killed off spiders and other natural enemies of the hoppers.
"There is a trend to go back to using chemicals, under pressure from salesmen and advertisements," said FAO country chief Andrew Speedy.
"Vietnam has a long and successful history of applying integrated pest management for natural control of pests and this should not be forgotten by modern farmers."
Despite such efforts and government promises to make things better, for now, housewife Huong remains sceptical.
"I don't trust the officials," she said. "They say a lot of things but don't realise them. We have to protect ourselves and our families."
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