(Loa) A Look Inside: Food Safety After the Fish Crisis
Published February 28, 2017
By Nguyễn Linh Chi
The food culture in Việt Nam is big. People gather and socialize over food. Business deals are made over food and ceremonies are performed with food. So it’s no surprise that quality of food is also a hot topic. Travelers to Việt Nam are often warned of food poisoning prior to entering the country. Rumors of plastic rice, rubber noodles, and other toxic additives in food regularly pop up on local and social media. Not holding much faith to the state, being selective with food to bring home to the family has been just as much a part of the food culture. But the fish crisis last year elevated public skepticism to another level.
Listen to Loa’s reporting on the crisis in episode 48 of Loa.
Since we last checked in, Formosa officially took responsibility for the mass marine deaths, and agreed to pay a 500 million dollar fine to compensate for losses. A toxic combination of phenol, cyanide and ferric hydroxide was found in water samples and was confirmed to be the cause of the fish deaths.
Thái Văn Dung, a Việt Tân member and human rights activist based in Vinh, central Vietnam believes the 500 million dollar fine is nowhere near the amount needed to compensate for the damage that was done.
He says, “They said Formosa would pay the fine – but what exactly will the 500 million dollars be compensating for the people? That’s not enough to afford caskets for the Vietnamese people.”
“Is fish safe to eat yet?”
This is the big question on many people’s minds, as Central Vietnam supplies seafood for the rest of the nation. Vietnamese government officials made an announcement in November 2016 that fish from above the seabed are safe to eat. The public announcement included a list of 154 kinds of contaminated fish to avoid, and strongly urged consumers to avoid eating seafood caught within twenty nautical miles to the shore. It did not include plans to filter the sea, or how to contain contaminated seafood from flooding the market.
“‘Hey, don’t eat things twenty miles away’ – How do we tell? That doesn’t help us at all. It just feels like a very gimmicky answer and a very rushed response that they felt like they had to say something, because they haven’t spent enough time that they should have earlier looking into the problems that happened,’ says Hoàng Nguyễn, a 27-year-old from Huế, central Việt Nam, who is currently studying public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“I mean, if you won that 500 million settlement, there needs to be a plan. And if you don’t have a plan, there are big organisations who you can ask for help, such as the WHO, and other big health organizations,” he says. “Oil spill at fisheries has happened before and you can learn from the mistakes of other countries to see how you should address the problem. The next thing is be very transparent with the plan.”
But transparency hasn’t exactly been a strong point. Last April, the same month the mass fish deaths occurred, high-ranking officials from from both Hà Tĩnh and Đà Nẵng –– two regions heavily impacted by the crisis –– announced that fish were no longer dying. In November, the head of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Trần Hồng Hà, assured the public that the Central coast beaches are safe to swim in. Thái Văn Dung says, “They keep saying that the sea is safe and that some fish is safe to eat.. But there is nothing left in the sea to catch. The toxic killed them all. The people are suffering badly. When the officials said fish caught above twenty nautical miles is safe to eat, the fishermen went out and did just this, but no one would purchase their catch. No one is there to make sure the fish is caught above twenty nautical miles, or whether the fish is contaminated at all. They keep saying all this to mislead the public, especially poor people who aren’t aware of the fish deaths. They keep telling people that the fish are safe to eat. But would they eat the fish themselves?”
“Would they eat the fish themselves?”
This is the other question many are asking. In April 2016, the people of Hà Tĩnh offered their head official Đặng Ngọc Sơn one kilogram of fish a day, and invited him to take a dive in the local waters. The officer objected, despite previously proclaiming its safety. The phone conversation of this offer was recorded and put on the internet. It went viral.
Meanwhile, reports of food poisoning continued to soar. In Quảng Ngãi, central Vietnam, there were reports of 28 hospital admissions over food poisoning linked to eating contaminated fish. In Đà Nẵng, a deadly fish dinner sent a family of three to the hospital in December. An anonymous interview with the people of Nghệ An with a group of blue collar workers revealed four cases of food poisoning-related deaths over contaminated fish. The video was widely spread online, but never made it to official news.
The internet has been a key platform for information gathering in light of the big, unanswered questions surrounding the crisis. It has also served as the means of educating citizens on the risks of eating contaminated fish. A quick search on google returns countless tips and tricks to help health conscious consumers detect contamination. And the more people get informed, the more seafood demands have plummeted. Meanwhile, other proteins such as pork, beef, and chicken are seeing record high sales. Dantri news reports that certain cuts of pork are doubling – some tripling its price in the market. Thái Văn Dung says consumers in general are backing out from purchasing seafood altogether, but many people out there don’t get to have a choice.
Many people still continue eating fish, knowing it’s toxic, because they can’t afford to eat anything else. Everything else is getting more expensive because fish doesn’t sell. Poor people are risking their lives and are just taking it day by day.
After participating in several medical missions in Việt Nam, Hoàng, the Public Health graduate student in London, says the lack of government protection of public health in a time of environmental crisis is linked to deeper issues such as ethics and human rights.
Hoàng says, “Public health is in general is looking at the health of the public, which is sometimes very ignorant, especially in governments like Vietnam, where it seems like its citizens, the people, are not their priority. That ties into ethics.” He says activism and civil disobedience is a natural byrproduct of such conditions.
Thái Văn Dung is one of many riding this wave of increased activism, as he continues to organize protests on the fish crisis in Central Vietnam. Although many of these protests have ended in police brutality, Dung says he will not stop until the government steps up and takes responsibility. He and many protesters across the country continue to raise their voices, demanding justice for the people of Việt Nam.