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Public health at stake
Son Nguyen
Friday,  Oct 6, 2017,14:25 (GMT+7)

Public health at stake

Son Nguyen

All and every people in HCMC may have eaten poisonous meat due to huge flaws in the food safety control system. This presumption is ascertained after police and inspectors last week busted a large-scale ring where thousands of pigs were found to be injected with sedative drugs, sending waves of panic among millions of consumers in the city.

As the scandal unfolds, it can be seen greed by traders coupled with neglect of responsibility, if not conspiracy, on the part of State veterinary officers, has been the root cause of such a food scare. Administrative fines have been slapped on the culprits for apparently criminal offenses.

As widely covered in local media, having been tipped off by some people for over a month, inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in collaboration with police last Thursday broke into Xuyen A Slaughterhouse in the outlying district of Cu Chi, and caught red-handed workers injecting a sedative drug named Combistress into big herds of pigs there. Quick tests that followed suit showed that as many as 3,750 pigs out of the total of over 5,000 there had been drugged.

Xuyen A is the biggest slaughterhouse in the city, supplying some 50% of pork to the entire city with some 13 million residents. Traders, who rent facilities at the slaughterhouse to butcher pigs, admitted to police and inspectors that sedative drugs are administered on pigs to calm them down. However, experts point out that apart from the expressly-stated purpose, pork from sedated pigs will look fresher, helping traders fetch a better price.

The danger is that sedative drug residue will adversely affect the people’s health, exposing them to numerous diseases, especially cardiovascular, digestive and mental illnesses, according to Tien Phong. Such adverse effects on human health will be long-standing. Also according to the newspaper, most sedated pigs in the case were found to be wearing traceability tags, meaning efforts by HCMC’s authority to enhance food safety have not paid dividends.

Several big questions emerge, such as how long the illegal practice has taken place, and why city’s inspectors have failed to uncover the irregularities.

Many people believe that the illegal practice has persisted there for a long time, as inspectors and police could only brought the case to daylight after over a month being tipped off by the people, according to Nguoi Lao Dong. The number of sedated pigs is unimaginable as thousands of pigs are drugged a day at the slaughterhouse, according to the paper.

Initial investigations show that among 20 traders who rent facilities at the slaughterhouse, 13 of them often have pig administered with sedative drugs, according to Tuoi Tre. “This must not be the first time pigs are sedated at Xuyen A,” says the news website of the Voice of Vietnam Radio station. And if a big slaughterhouse like Xuyen A can perform such an illegal act, there is good reason to believe that other smaller slaughterhouses can do the same, says the website.

More specifically, one of the two workers who were caught red-handed injecting the drug to the pigs admitted that “it is their workaday job (to inject the drug),” Tien Phong reports.

There are also signs of conspiracy, as it is known that at the time of police break-in, all cameras at the site did not work, according to Tuoi Tre. According to the paper, several animal health officers are tasked to supervise this slaughterhouse on a regular basis, but they have failed to uncover wrongdoings there. A leader of the city’s Animal Health Division reveals that up to 17 animal health officers responsible for supervising the slaughterhouse’s operations have been ordered to make reports on their jobs there. The division’s leadership has admitted to loopholes in their supervision.

Asked whether there is collusion between pig traders and animal health officers, a police officer refuses to confirm conspiracy, but asserts in Tuoi Tre that “animal health officers have neglected their duties, as sedative drug packages can be found scattered on the floor of the slaughterhouse.”

Pham Khanh Phong Lan, head of the city’s Food Safety Control Board, angrily charges animal health officers for their neglect of duties, saying in the paper that “it is unacceptable when pig traders can have their men come into the concentrated slaughterhouse to administer sedative drugs,” and the question of collusion must be answered.

Upon the suggestion by Pham Khanh Phong Lan, the HCMC government has issued a decision to destroy all the sedated pigs, whose total value may exceed VND10 billion. In addition, Xuyen A Slaughterhouse is also ordered to suspend operation pending further investigations. The tough stance is meant to ward off future violations by traders.

At the same time, dossiers on the traders’ violations have been sent to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to issue decisions to slap administrative fines of between VND32 million and VND35 million on each of the offenders. However, the measure is seen lenient towards such traders, whose violations have amounted to criminal offenses.

According to Nguoi Lao Dong, several cases of sedative drugs being injected into pigs have been found in HCMC in the past, but sanctions were not strong enough, with fines ranging around only some VND5-6 million. 

With the new fines proposed at VND30-35 million for each violator this time, the sanction is seen not matching the level of danger caused to consumers and the society in general, says Lawyer Nguyen Thanh Cong on Nguoi Lao Dong. According to the lawyer, criminal charges must be pressed against such violators. Otherwise, traders can continue their violations to make illegal gains, while the entire public health system will remain at stake.

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