In recent years, Hanoi has relegated aspects of food safety oversight to local-level administrations. The implementation, however, has not always gone according to plan.
Within the local administrations, including communes, wards and towns, the lack of qualified officials and adequate budget for inspection activities are hampering food safety management. Though the decentralisation of food safety management responsibilities from the city-level administration to lower levels – communes and townships – is clearly defined in the laws, localities are not always able to fulfill their responsibilities.
Nguyen Thi Thu Hien, vice chairwoman of Chi Dong town People’s Committee (Me Linh district, Hanoi), said after two years’ work on implementing its new food safety management system, the town has managed to establish a committee to oversee food safety in the locality.
However, Hien admitted that food safety inspection has not been as professional as it should be.
“Determination of whether a business has complied with certain trade requirements is still arbitrary,” she said.
She added that when a product is suspected of violating regulations, the inspectorate body struggles with collecting samples and sending them for lab tests. In turn, this hinders the town’s handling of violations.
According to Nguyen Thi Ngoc Ha, head of Me Linh district’s economic department, there are 730 agro-forestry-fisheries producers in the locality under the direct management of the commune-level government. The majority of these producers, however, are small-scale ones without fixed locations, making it difficult for the authorities to keep track of their operations, as well as complete investigation and check-ups.
Le Linh Duy, General Director of Dong Bac A Co Ltd, said this has led to a situation where the “authorities mostly set sights on properly licenced and law-abiding businesses,” which are easier to keep track of. Meanwhile, inspection of unregistered small-scaled businesses that are the main sources of questionable food falls by the wayside.
In addition, some communes fail to take stock of food traders and producers properly, leading to a failure to deliver full reports to the higher-level government. Ha said the commune officials are often unable to correctly assess food safety conditions according to their assigned level of management.
Commune-level food safety authorities are severely lacking in number and in capacity. They also rarely get access to food safety inspection instruments and equipment. Another problem is the lack of budget for local-level governments to investigate food safety compliance, making it difficult for them to carry out the most basic activities like collecting food samples for lab tests.
Director of the Hanoi Department of Agricultural, Forestry, and Fisheries Quality Control, Tran Manh Quang, said food safety has always been a major issue. He also reaffirmed the need for local authorities to shoulder the lion’s share of oversight in this matter.
Quang said he understood local governments’ difficulties with performing these new duties, and has called on the city to craft policies to encourage businesses to invest in transparent production methods, and to continue building centralised slaughterhouses in districts and communes.
Regarding businesses that fail to meet criteria for receiving food safety approval licences, local government ought to help them address their shortcomings, he said. On the other hand, those guilty of repeated violations need to be punished strictly.