Toxic Food Additives Plague Vietnam

food - Saigon/HCMC: Nov. 10, 2016

Chemically-treated water spinach is in the news again. In September 2016, authorities discovered three households in HCMC’s Cu Chi District that had chemically treated 1.5 tonnes of spinach with green dye, usually reserved for colouring cloth. Again, in November 2016, another establishment was found dying the popular Vietnamese side dish, this time in Dong Nai Province. Around 100 kg of raw water spinach was found beside a basin with green dye. The chemical was bought at the Kim Bien market in District 5, which sells artificial flavouring and dyes for food.

Water Spinach

Photo by: Alpha

Here is an exceprt from about Kim Bien:

“Chemical sellers at the market advertise a kind of white powder, priced VND80,000 ($4) per gram, saying that only one spoon is enough to make a pot of 100 litres of water have the flavor of beef. Using this unknown substance, restaurants don’t have to simmer cow bones to have sweet beef broth.”

From the same article, an expert source says that the “unknown powder” may be Sodium Metabisulfite, a food and cosmetic preservative that is also used as an industrial bleaching agent.

Here is another excerpt:

“‘Just five minutes after being soaked [in a] solution, the skin of dead chickens will turn yellow like fresh chicken. Many people come here to buy this chemical for only VND250,000 per litre,’ a trader said…. [traders] also introduced buyers to chemicals to process different kinds of food, to make fresh food from poor quality materials.”

Yellow Skinned Chicken

Photo by: Mark Denton

Food chemical problems are not limited to dyes and preservatives: the Treatment Department of the Ministry of Health relayed that in the first half of 2011, there were 3,000 cases of pesticide poisoning, with over 100 deaths. According to Professor Nguyen Vinh Truong of the Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, “the country's total importation of chemicals used for plant protection in 2013 was 5,000 times over that in 1994.”

Spraying Pesticides

Photo by: Garycycles8

Pham Manh Thong, Head of Unit 5, Environmental Crime Prevention Department (C49) of the Ministry of Public Security, released information that over 9 tonnes of salbutamol was imported into Vietnam in 2015; of this, 10 kg were used properly, while a majority was used in pig farming to create lean meat. The substance, used to open air passages in the lungs of asthma patients, is bought by many companies for VND2 million/kg, and eventually sold to farmers for around VND8 million/kg, according to a C49 officer.

While toxic food additives and harmful pesticides are financially convenient, in the long run they look to be quite deadly. Vietnam had 126,307 cases of cancer in 2010 - a number that expects to rise to 190,000 in 2020. Dr. Nguyen Ba Duc, Deputy Chairman of the Vietnam Cancer Association, gave three factors that cause cancer in Vietnam: genetics, pollution and diet. Unsafe food accounts for 35% of cancer cases in the country.

Enjoying Streetfood

Photo by: Paul Galow

Annually, Vietnamese spend $1.16 billion treating just six types of cancer, according to Tran Van Tuan, director of the Institute for Research on Cancer Prevention and Treatment.

Dang Huy Quoc Thinh, deputy director of the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital, said that:

“The uncontrollable issue of food hygiene in Vietnam, including food containing toxic chemicals which will affect health for generations, will not only cause cancer but many other diseases.... In recent years, the problem of foods containing toxins or carcinogens has been raised in the mass media, but the issue is still not under control…. Such types of food are sourced from rotting meat dipped into toxic chemicals to make it look and feel fresh.”


Shortsighted gains have created a habit of cutting costs at the expense of health. While cancer rates rise, food hygiene, additive awareness and less reliance on pesticides are slow to catch up. It does not help that cancer patients are having difficulty paying for their treatment: out of 1,200 cancer patients from Bach Mai Hospital and K Hospital in Hanoi, 22% said they were having difficulties paying the hospital fees during the first year of cancer treatment. Out of the 560 that said they did not have any financial difficulties in the first 12 months, 41% said they began to face economic hardship after the first year.

Head Photo by: LisArt