Who is the real player?
Due to its misleading fish sauce test results, the Vietnam Standard and Consumers Association (Vinastas) last week issued an official apology to consumers, fish sauce producers, distributors and authorities. Nonetheless, the damaging impact of the wrongful survey is so huge that it might take the country’s traditional fish sauce industry a long time to recover.
Vinastas chairman Doan Phuong said in a statement that the survey team was confused by the term “arsenic” as defined by the Vietnam Encyclopedia. This is meant to explain why the association did not make clear whether arsenic is in its organic or inorganic form. The survey simply claimed traditionally made fish sauce contained a higher-than-permitted level of arsenic, which was later ascertained as organic. Arsenic is highly toxic in its inorganic form while in its organic form, it is safe for humans.
Vinastas apologized for the consequences of its false test results, which have adversely affected consumers, traditional fish sauce makers and distributors, saying it would hold all individuals involved accountable and review its professional code of conduct to repeat such mistakes in the future.
On October 18, the association published on its website a story “Nearly 85% of fish sauce samples of 88 enterprises fail to meet standards”. The story revealed information in which 104 fish sauce samples (out of 150 tested) failed to meet standards for arsenic content. The survey showed 95.65% of fish sauce samples contained a higher-than-permitted level of arsenic. But arsenic found in traditional fish sauce was in its organic form.
Immediately after Vinastas held a news briefing on the survey results, the untruthful survey results sent a shockwave as more than 90% of Vietnamese eat fish sauce almost on a daily basis. It made big headlines with nearly 560 articles published by 50 news outlets. Consequently, some stores boycotted traditional fish sauce and consumers became wary, sending traditional fish sauce makers into a tailspin and hurting the reputation of Vietnamese fish sauce on world markets.
The survey seems to have been orchestrated by T&A Ogilvy, a major communication and advertising firm. The Government on Tuesday named T&A Ogilvy as the sponsor of the survey. The Ministry of Industry and Trade is still investigating where the sponsorship actually came because communication firms work as agents of goods producers and services providers.
Economist Pham Chi Lan says in Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper that T&A Ogilvy is a communication joint venture, so there is no sane reason for it to sponsor Vinastas to conduct a survey of fish sauce which it does not produce. Law enforcement agencies should force T&A Ogilvy to clarify which organization was behind the survey.
Lan says it is unacceptable for Vinastas to say sorry after making a terrible mistake. Vinastas represents over 90 million consumers, so it was irresponsible to conduct such a survey.
Lawyer Pham Thanh Tung from the Hanoi Bar Association stresses the need to track down the real player. Traditional fish sauce producers and retailers should go farther, such as taking legal action. Evidence of their damage caused by the misleading information from Vinastas should be garnered. Lawyers have expressed interest in helping those affected to file lawsuits.
The Ministry of Information and Communications has slapped fines of a combined VND1 billion on 50 news organizations for publishing untruthful reports about the presence of arsenic in fish sauce. Vinastas should be held accountable for its damaging action too.