Editor’s Note: William Geoffrey Deetz is an American chef who has been in the food industry for 35 years, 28 years of which have been spent on cooking Vietnamese dishes. Deetz has lived in Vietnam since 2000 and he owns two restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. He wrote this article for Tuoitrenews while local people are still shocked at the discovery that a cancer-causing chemical was found in most Vietnamese rice noodle types.
I saw many things in Vietnam that would be considered illegal in developed countries. I has seen that the food industry in Vietnam is really self-regulated until there is a serious problem. What I could do to improve the hygiene and food handling here is I always cook as clean as possible in my restaurants and make everything myself or use trusted suppliers.
I have been in the food business for 35 years now and spent most of these years in California where I had to adhere to very strict but necessary laws in preparing and handling food. At times these laws can be far too unreasonable but the need for the inspectors and insurance companies to ensure safety is so important that we have the toughest food laws in the world. The reason behind is that if someone was to harm, poison, injure or kill someone else due to negligence or greed in the way they serve or process food in developed countries, the cost would be very high and the chance of being jailed or paying a multimillion dollar fine is always in your mind.
The biggest problem I saw in the restaurant business is food handling. Hygiene is not the biggest concern as Vietnamese people are very clean. The storage of food is the real issue since Vietnamese restaurants, as I have learned, operate by mostly freezing everything till the customer orders it. Though the quality is affected, the chance of someone getting sick is lowered.
Most Vietnamese are not taught about food temperatures and this is, in my opinion, the cause of most food poisoning cases. This is also why I find a busy street vendor far safer than a restaurant, due to the fact that it is much like when Vietnamese cook and eat at home, they shop only for the food they will eat during the day whereas the storage of cooked food in restaurants is a real concern.
When first coming to Vietnam in 1999, I was aware of the use of toxic fillers and preservatives that were being used in China such as using toxic liquids to dissolve cardboard for making steamed pork buns. As an American, I found this shocking and could not understand the lack of care for the consumer and the blind greed that led people to do such a life-threatening thing.
Then in mid-2000, I saw the use of Melamine, a chemical additive that is used in paints, in baby powders. What motivated the producers to value money more than people’s safety and ultimately their life? Is a life in the western world valued far higher than in developing countries? This is at the base of the problem. This cannot be solved by food inspectors here in this developing part of the world, as they often have relationships with guideline violators so the latter will not be given any severe punishment.
We have seen the horrible results of someone in India trying to make a little extra money on cooking oil and thus killing large groups of small children. Though the head of the school will be prosecuted, it would not have even come close to this if the law had been stricter. Those violating the law should face real punishment so that others will be detered from seeking small increases in profit at the expense of people’s lives.
Given the constraints of costs and the large problem of poisonous additives here in Vietnam, several things can be done now.
I would ensure that companies producing food products are properly licensed and insured because the insuring of these businesses will create another watchdog group in the insurance companies. They will ultimately be held financially responsible if one of their clients is breaking the law. They have the assets and manpower to help regulate these companies and individuals who are selling products to the consumer.
Punishment must be far more severe, including larger fines or longer jail time. If the fine for using banned additives is smaller, violators will be willing to continue given the upside of the bigger profits made by mislabeling children’s milk powders or adding a whitener to keep the pho noodles whiter. As a result, this problem will never go away.
I read recently about a man who imported a product in large quantities and what was in the product had no nutritional value and was given to children under the assumption it was high-grade and had all the benefits the product said it did on the label. His fine was, as I remember, a few thousand dollars and I’m sure the profits he made selling this fake product was hundreds, if not thousands, of times more so where is the deterrent? In my opinion, if this had been done in California the company would have been closed, the owner fined millions of dollars and also sued for millions more by the people who bought his product. If this had been a possibility known by this company, I’m sure he would not have risked it.
Cost is the problem here as most Vietnamese cannot afford to buy imported products and the time it will take to change is not a realistic solution for the consumer now. Going to a store such as Metro that has strict rules for anyone to sell to them is a start but unfortunate the problem will not go away unless more severe steps are taken. I think Vietnamese consumers need to be more active in identifying those suppliers who are violating the law as well as find the good ones and support them.
The best steps should be having a body of the health department certify good manufactures and food providers to help weed out the bad. But again with the real possibility of any board that gives approval to one and not to another becoming corrupt, it is really best that regulations are very strict on those who violate the public’s trust, harm our children, and poison our lives to make fast money.
I fear that this problem will continue to get worse as costs rise and profits shrink. The only way to see a faster turnaround is for consumers to build a demand for healthier products as well as the need for locals and foreigners to start small businesses that produce clean food. The media and other branches of society should promote and support these businesses correspondingly.
Vietnam basically needs a modern food movement to reintroduce food the way it was produced years ago. For example, it can start a rice noodle company that ensures the rice is clean and where it was grown and the way it was made. Next, it should have businesses buy this product and talk about it in their restaurants. This has been the way developed countries have fallen back in love with food again by having all these hand-crafted and natural products showcased on their menus.