Vietnam fines scores of news outlets for publishing false reports on 'toxic fish sauce'

Bottles of fish sauce (in blue) are displayed for sale at a stand inside a local market in downtown Hanoi on Nov 21, 2016.
Bottles of fish sauce (in blue) are displayed for sale at a stand inside a local market in downtown Hanoi on Nov 21, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

HANOI (AFP) - Vietnam on Monday (Nov 21) fined scores of news outlets for publishing now-discredited reports about toxic fish sauce, accusing them of sparking public panic over the staple condiment in a country plagued by food scares.

Reports emerged in mid-October that some fish sauce contained dangerously high levels of arsenic, with local media mainly citing a survey by the state-controlled Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association (Vinastas).

The stories ignited widespread fear in Vietnam, where fish sauce is consumed daily by most of the country's 93 million people - as a dipping sauce, marinade or in soups.

The government said on Monday the reports failed to distinguish between highly-toxic inorganic arsenic, and organic arsenic which is present mainly in seafood and is less toxic.

"The news caused panic in our society, causing consumers to boycott traditional fish sauce... seriously undermining Vietnam's age-old fish sauce production," the Ministry of Information and Communication said on its website.

Traditional fish sauce is made from fermented fish, while more modern versions are made with artificial flavouring. The survey suggested that traditionally-made sauces were toxic.

The ministry fined 50 news organisations for running the reports, including the mainstream Thanh Nien newspaper, which was slapped with a nearly US$9,000 (S$12,804.30) penalty.

The newspaper, which received the highest fine because it also ran its own independent survey, was accused of "publishing incorrect information that undermined national interests", the ministry said.

Other fines ranged from US$450 to US$2,200 and the ministry said 560 news items in total were published.

Vietnam rarely has to punish its own media because the communist party controls all newspapers, which are filled with state-sanctioned reporting and propaganda.

The reports were declared false after an investigation by the Health Ministry, which later concluded the fish sauce to be safe.

This is not the country's first food scare. In April, tonnes of dead fish began washing ashore in central Vietnam, sparking panic about whether the marine life was safe to eat. The disaster was blamed on a toxic waste dump by Taiwanese steel firm Formosa.

Earlier this year, a video of factory workers in Vietnam injecting shrimp with an unknown substance to make them look fatter went viral, prompting public fury.

Vietnamese consumers have long voiced concern about the use of pesticides at produce farms and cattle ranches, and major food poisoning incidents have become increasingly common, especially at factory canteens.