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Cablegate: Vietnam's Food Safety Programs Lack Bite

VZCZCXRO5072
RR RUEHHM
DE RUEHHI #0694/01 1620738
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 100738Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY HANOI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7994
INFO RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH 4839
RUEHPH/CDC ATLANTA GA
RUEAUSA/DEPT OF HHS WASHINGTON DC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 000694

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

HHS/OSSI/DSI PASS TO OGHA AND FDA
CDC FOR COGH AND NCZVED/DFBMD/EDEB

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ECON EAGR SENV TBIO EFIN ETRD VM
SUBJECT: VIETNAM'S FOOD SAFETY PROGRAMS LACK BITE

REF: A. HANOI 588 B. HANOI 2012 C. HANOI 421

1. (SBU) Summary: The second recent major cholera outbreak served as
a backdrop to the recent March announcement by the Ministry of
Health (MOH) to focus on food safety issues. Earlier this year,
Vietnam initiated a USD 81 million-4-year plan consisting of six
different food safety and hygiene projects. The projects will focus
on improving food safety management throughout the country,
including implementing better inspection techniques for food sold by
street vendors. The Government of Vietnam (GVN) has sought to
increase public awareness about food safety through the mass media.
However, problems remain. The country still does not have
sufficient food inspectors or laboratory capacity to examine all of
the food producers and services across the country, nor an adequate
regulatory framework to improve the situation. The GVN has yet to
establish necessary mechanisms to prevent and clean up contaminated
soil and water, which continue to introduce various pollutants into
the food chain. End Summary.


STATE OF PLAY
-------------

2. (U) In early May 2008, the MOH's General Department of Preventive
Medicine and Environmental Health (GDPMEH), formerly the Vietnam
Administration of Preventive Medicine (VAPM), announced that the
latest cholera outbreak had receded (Ref A). In the wake of what
the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates are over 8 million
cases of food poisoning a year among Vietnam's population of about
88 million, the GVN had responded to the outbreak with an aggressive
campaign to inspect and close unsanitary food establishments. Since
then, half of the unhygienic dog meat restaurants and street food
stalls closed by the GVN have reopened after complying with
regulations, according to Hoang Tien, Deputy Director General at
MOH's Department of Food Safety and Hygiene. Deputy Director Tien
told Econoff that Health inspectors are randomly re-checking food
hygiene and sanitation standards.

BUDGETS AND OBJECTIVES
----------------------

3. (U) In 2007, the GVN listed Food Hygiene and Safety as one of ten
national target programs. The Prime Minister signed a decision to
adopt a national food safety program for 2006-2010 (Ref B) to
increase food safety management capacity to ensure food safety based
on regional and international standards. The GVN has implemented
the Program nationwide through six projects that aim to increase the
management of food safety and quality; educate people on food
safety; increase the ability of health inspectors to assess food
safety; build up a food poisoning inspection system for diseases
transmitted through food; and analyze pollution that leads to
transmitting food-borne diseases. The program also seeks to ensure
food safety in the production and processing of agricultural
products and environmental safety and food safety for fishery
products.

4. (U) The cost estimate for implementing these six projects over
four years is approximately USD 81 million. The GVN says the money
"will be mobilized" from the national budget, local budgets, loans,
credits and foreign support. For 2008, the GVN budget for these
projects totals nearly USD 40 million. However, the state budget
allocation for these six projects this year is only USD 6.8 million.
Therefore, "mobilizing funds from other sources is an urgent need,"
according to Tran Dang, Director General at MOH's Vietnam Food
Administration (VFA).

EDUCATION AND MEDIA CAMPAIGNS
-----------------------------

5. (U) Despite ongoing GVN efforts, the number of entities that
produce food products for the domestic market that fully understand
modern standards and controls for food safety remains low, though
the percentage increased from 47.8 percent in 2005 to 53.8 percent
in 2007, according to a public statement from Deputy Prime Minister
Nguyen Sinh Hung. Vietnamese consumers, as well, seem uninformed
about food safety issues. A recent survey by the online newspaper
VnExpress of 3,740 readers found that 1540 readers (41 percent) were
not concerned by the ongoing cholera epidemic because they thought
it was a "normal diarrhea" epidemic. To combat this lack of
awareness, MOH officials state that with technical assistance from
the WHO they are "stepping up" the campaign to warn people of the
dangers of eating uncooked vegetables, using unhygienic food outlets
and drinking contaminated water.

6. (U) During the cholera outbreaks, MOH's Tien stated that the
campaign used television, radio and newspaper to get the word out

HANOI 00000694 002 OF 003


about necessary food safety precautions. State-controlled mass
media outlets carried interviews with health officers from the MOH
and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Mass media
outlets also featured online question and answer sessions regarding
the outbreaks. More than six million flyers and posters and 1000
video tapes and CDs were distributed across Vietnam. More
generally, the Department of Food Safety and Hygiene also has put
out public notices in an effort "to raise people's awareness about
food safety issues." Themes stressed in these notices include: 1)
consuming well-cooked and clean food and drink; 2) washing hands
regularly; 3) washing cooking materials and bowls thoroughly; 4)
preserving food; 5) properly disposing of waste; and, 6) not eating
raw food. In rural areas, MOH sent local officers to advise people
how to cook and follow proper food safety precautions.

A MONTH OF "ACTION"
-------------------

7. (U) Earlier last month, MOH launched an "action month for food
safety and hygiene quality" (from April 15 to May 15) nationwide. A
kickoff meeting, "Extended Health Partnership Group Meeting on Food
Safety" was held, with invited participation by the WHO, the UN Food
and Agricultural Organization and USDA. During the meeting,
participants examined numerous inconsistent and inadequate laws,
regulations and standards, highlighting the fundamental policy
development challenges. Recommended activities included "speeding
up" inspections and examination of food safety and hygiene; prompt
detection and punishment of violations of food safety laws; and
promoting the issuance of food safety certificates for establishing,
producing and trading in food for restaurants and food vendors.
However, the lack of adequate and sufficient laboratory capacity
impedes testing, without which the GVN cannot fully enforce its food
safety laws.


LIMITED FOOD SAFETY INSPECTION PROFESSIONALS
--------------------------------------------

8. (U) Staffing for professional food safety inspection remains
limited, particularly in the provinces. According to the VFA, which
operates the government's food inspection, it has only 230
inspection professionals at all levels. According to Deputy
Director Tien, VFA has "no-well-trained inspection employees" and
has "just submitted" a project proposal to train more inspectors in
food safety. Due to the lack of inspectors, VFA rarely conducts
food safety examinations and inspections except during peak times,
for example, during the cholera outbreaks last April and during Tet
Lunar holiday. Therefore, VFA only meets a very small part of the
overall requirement for food safety inspection, Deputy Director Tien
added.

STREET FOOD DANGERS
-------------------

9. (U) Eating out has become habit for most Vietnamese, although
restaurants are relatively new, opening in substantial numbers
starting in the early 1990s. Street vendors are mobile, which makes
it more difficult to monitor and improve their knowledge about food
safety, according to Director Dang. Regulating food safety via
certification has yet to be conducted effectively; only ten percent
of food producers and retailers have received food safety
certificates nationwide, according to a Thanh Nien Daily news
report. With up to 49,000 food producers and 196,000 food and drink
service shop across Vietnam, that leaves well over a hundred
thousand unlicensed food providers serving millions of Vietnamese
each day. Many street vendors reportedly try to avoid the food
inspectors since their profits are too little to pay the fees of a
certificate application.

10. (U) Due to concerns about hygiene and food safety, some
consumers in larger, increasing numbers of urban dwellers have begun
to shop at supermarkets rather than at street markets. In the first
three months of this year, the number of customers at the major
supermarkets increased 20-25 percent. For instance, at Big C
supermarket in Hanoi (one of the few large markets with a western
design), the produce department generates major revenues with
vegetable sales alone earning the company a turnover of USD 1,875 a
day, according to the Outlook news report.

LACK OF SANITATION SYSTEMS
--------------------------

11. (U) More than 30 lakes in Hanoi that tested positive for the
presence of cholera bacteria are now being cleaned (Ref C).
Nevertheless, according to MOH's Tien, the GVN needs to do more to
clean lakes and inform residents about the cholera bacteria in

HANOI 00000694 003 OF 003


dangerous zones. With sanitation infrastructure dating back to the
19th Century, poor water quality continues to bedevil Hanoi's over
three million residents. According to Ngo Trung Hai, Vice-Head of
the Institute of Urban and Rural Planning, temporary toilets for
construction set next to these lakes ensure that raw sewage enters
the water system. These flows of raw sewage infected the lakes with
cholera and other bacteria, according to Hai. Lack of toilets and
hand washing facilities in homes and schools seriously affect
people's health in rural Vietnam, according to a United Nations'
report. Many people throughout the country use lake and river water
for washing food, spreading dangerous bacteria, added Tien.
Further, human feces are a primary source of fertilizer for many
agricultural products.

COMMENT: AN UPHILL BATTLE
-------------------------

12. (SBU) GVN officials understand that they must build upon their
effective response to recent food borne disease outbreaks. The best
solution is a strong preventive system, based on sound coherent
policy and regulations, focusing on upgrading food safety and
hygiene practices. Hopefully, the MOH's six-point plan will form
the basis of these upgrades. However, changing long-standing habits
is difficult even when sufficient resources are brought to bear.
Tien's comments indicate the GVN will continue to face an uphill
battle in ensuring that Vietnam's food producers, sellers and
consumers follow proper food safety procedures.

ALOISI

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