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Amid tensions, Chinese fruit a turnoff in Vietnam

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm •  Published: March 18, 2013

Fruit and vegetable imports from China are especially vulnerable to consumer backlash because of that country's well-documented instances of food tampering, overuse of pesticides and lax regulations on everything from baby milk, dried fruit to meat products. Moreover, Vietnam's recently minted middle class, like their brethren elsewhere, are increasingly concerned about the provenance and quality of what they put on their plates in general.

China has emerged as one of the world's leading exporters of fruit and vegetables, and is increasingly taking market share from U.S. producers in Asian markets. It grows more apples than any other country. There are no figures on how much of the crop Vietnam imports. Chinese fruit is often cheaper than Vietnamese, and offers more variety.

Nguyen Quang Bach, a customs official at Tan Thanh, one of the major entry points for Chinese goods into Vietnam, said last year daily imports peaked at 2,100 metric tons of fruit a day in the run up to the Lunar New Year, when demand for fruits is at its highest. He said this year the busiest day saw half that cross the border.

"The information (about alleged dangers) has affected people's psychology," he said. "Consumers don't eat Chinese fruits and importers can't sell them."

The media stories on Chinese food scares are laced with rumor and statistics as alarming as they are dubious. The Pioneer, one of the country's largest circulation papers, repeated rumors about leeches in milk and watermelons imported from China. It went on to report on the case of a woman from northern Vietnam who was admitted into a hospital after suffering from stomach ache. The doctor apparently fainted when he saw the leeches squirming inside her stomach.

Hoang Trung, a deputy director at the agriculture ministry, said tests found excessive levels of pesticide in four samples of Chinese grapes, apricots and pomegranate in the first 8 months of last year. Since then, random tests at border checkpoints and on Chinese and Vietnamese fruits at major fruits markets came out clean.

"There are no grounds for the people to panic," he said.

Few people seem to be listening, a reflection perhaps of a lack of trust in Vietnamese government authorities.

At Hanoi's Long Bien market on the banks of the city's Red River, traders selling Vietnamese fruits occupy one half, with those hawking imports on the other. Around half of the produce at the market are trucked in from China, arriving in the city in the middle of the night. They disparage each other's products, but there doesn't appear to be any resentment.

"The Chinese are wicked, and their goods should be banned," said Xuan, who was sitting in front a stall selling tiny oranges from Southern Vietnam. "They are dangerous."

Those selling Chinese fruits note people are still buying the fruit, albeit in smaller quantities. They suggested Vietnamese food was as likely to be as toxic as Chinese, and dismissed the stories of dangerous fruit as unfounded rumors.

One suggested that the campaign was being orchestrated by the Vietnamese fruit producers as a form of protectionism. Nguyen, the fruit importer, said that didn't make sense because the whole industry was suffering as a result.

"If people truly boycott Chinese food, what else can they buy?" said Dung, who along with his wife was selling tiny Chinese, green apples, which he first told a reporter were from central Vietnam. "In reality, local fruit can't meet demand."