Fishy motive behind Vinastas’s deceptive fish sauce contamination claims

Thursday, 2016-12-01 17:30:15
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A traditional fish sauce making facility
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NDO - A consumer agency’s recent misleading information on arsenic content in fish sauce threw consumers into a panic and hurt producers nationwide. It turns out the agency’s survey was carried out in a non-transparent way and sponsored by a PR company.

Last October, Vinastas, fully known as the Vietnam Standards and Consumer Association, claimed that more than 95% of fish sauce samples it collected from the market and tested contained arsenic content exceeding the safe limit.

It also warned that 85% of fish sauce samples from 88 enterprises did not meet safety standards.

Such information, though not scientifically proven, caused confusion and anxiety among consumers, who shunned fish sauce made in the traditional way which usually contains a high arsenic content in favour of the condiment produced in industrial factories containing less arsenic.

However, Vinastas failed to explain that arsenic found in fish sauce is a harmless organic form and is rapidly eliminated by the body while the highly toxic inorganic arsenic is mainly only found in groundwater.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc promptly ordered an inquiry into Vinastas’s claims with an inspection team made up of experts from various ministries and the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations (Vusta), to which Vinastas is a member.

The government team found that Vinastas’s survey was not independent as well as that it was unreliable and lacked transparency.

The survey was carried out by Vinastas chairman and several other individuals with many stages conducted without permission and oversight by functional authorities. The process to take samples was unreliable and the samples were not properly coded.

And finally the survey was sponsored by T&A Ogilvy, a public relations company, which effectively invalidated its results under the law on consumer rights protection.

According to Bui Thi An, a former National Assembly deputy, such information which can have far-reaching consequences must be published on scientific and objective grounds and come from a non-profit motivation.

She said Vinastas’s flagrant violations not only affected consumers and producers but also made the public misunderstand and lose faith in other social and trade organisations.

She added that if the incident triggered by Vinastas had not been quickly clarified and resolved by competent authorities, Vietnam’s traditional fish sauce making industry would have faced disastrous consequences.

Such an episode requires competent authorities to adopt mechanisms strong enough to prevent the use of the media to disseminate misleading information, plunging the market into chaos for private benefits or to intentionally cause socio-economic instability.

According to a member of the Vinastas leadership, a meeting was called soon after the incident happened to seek solutions only to be cancelled later as too many staff members were absent.

On November 14, Vinastas Chairman Doan Phuong, who was mainly responsible for the survey, issued an apology to consumers, producers and regulators over the incident.

He cited the recklessness of the team carrying out the survey in equating arsenic with arsenic trioxide, a toxic compound of the element, as defined in the Vietnamese Encyclopaedia, as the reason for the misleading information.

Phuong added that Vinastas would make enquiries into the responsibilities of concerned individuals and rectify its organisation and working regulations to prevent similar errors from re-occurring in the future.

But experts say Vinastas’s apology was insincere and meant to appease the public without clarifying the violations of concerned individuals and measures to punish them.

The conclusion of competent authorities on Vinastas’s infringements is clear so the agency must promptly hold a meeting to work out ways to discipline those involved and not let the incident simply be swept under the carpet.

It is also imperative to determine who is really behind T&A Ogilvy in sponsoring Vinastas’s survey in order to organise this seemingly carefully orchestrated defamatory media campaign.

Vusta Chairman Dang Vu Minh said on November 30 that the union is not a superior to Vinastas so it has no jurisdiction to discipline Vinastas for its violations.

He said that Vinastas’s operation is entirely independent from Vusta and that Vusta’s only role was to bring its members together when requested.

On November 29, Prime Minister Phuc assigned the Ministry of Industry of Trade to direct Vinastas to correct its published information over fish sauce quality and severely punish those responsible.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Home Affairs was ordered to inspect Vinastas’s compliance of its regulations and clarify the agency’s legal status in protecting consumer rights.

Many experts say that it is time for the government to introduce strict rules to regulate the operation of trade associations as well as heavy sanctions to punish individuals and organisations seeking personal gains but harming those that they protect in their name.

They also underlined the necessity to thoroughly examine the motive behind the organisation’s release of false information.

At the same time, the mass media should be cautious in their news gathering and must evaluate controversial information carefully in order to prevent any unnecessary scandals that could have a major impact on businesses.