Like many countries, Vietnam recently banned several brands of Chinese toothpaste containing toxic ingredients. But Vietnam's food manufacturers have safety troubles of their own. A nationwide recall of soy sauce containing a known carcinogen is the latest of a series of food safety problems that have Vietnamese consumers, and some foreign importers, worried. Matt Steinglass has more from Hanoi.
In mid-May, food safety inspectors in Ho Chi Minh City announced that several brands of locally manufactured soy sauce contained dangerous levels of a cancer-causing agent called 3-MCPD.
The compound is apparently a natural by-product of the soy sauce fermentation process, one that should have been removed before the sauce was sold.
Since the announcement, inspections have been carried out in Hanoi and Danang, and the list of offending brands has grown to 17. On June 1, Vietnam's Ministry of Health ordered a nationwide recall of all 17 brands within one month.
What has angered Vietnamese consumers is that Ho Chi Minh City health inspectors first found excessive 3-MCPD levels in soy sauce in 2001 and failed to act.
That delay has also troubled Vietnamese legislators. Vu Minh Mao is deputy chairman of the Committee for Science, Technology and Environment of Vietnam's National Assembly. Mao says the committee has asked the Ministry of Health for a full report on its inspections by June 10.
In an interview Monday with the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien, Mao called the health department's six-year delay in reporting the 3-MCPD levels "unacceptable". The department has said it was unable to act because there were no regulations regarding 3-MCPD until 2005.
All of the manufacturers are Vietnamese except for Miwon Vietnam, a subsidiary of the South Korean company Miwon Foods. Bui Dinh Thang, assistant to the general director of Miwon Vietnam, says the company disputes the government's findings.
Thang says Miwon has been unjustly victimized, despite closely following the government's regulations. He says the company's own laboratory tests in South Korea found a 3-MCPD level well under the legal limit of one part per million.
The soy sauce scandal is the latest in a series of food safety violations in Vietnam. Last year, government inspectors found that most rice noodles in the markets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi contained formaldehyde or borax, both potentially dangerous chemicals.
And over the past two months, Vietnamese seafood exports to Japan and Russia have been blocked for containing banned antibiotics. It is not clear whether any of the tainted soy sauce might have been exported.