Hue, Vietnam — During the Tet or Lunar New Year, Vietnam's biggest festival, food contamination is a serious threat.
Vietnamese people say ăn Tết, literally "eat the Lunar New Year." During the festivities, which were at a peak Feb. 16-18 but traditionally last a full month, food is a central focus and revelers consume large amounts of a bewildering variety of food.
Amid the frenzy of activity, substandard food products and contaminated or rotten meat can be secretly slipped into restaurants, open markets and even malls.
The Daughters of Mary Immaculate have chosen the time leading up to the holiday to educate people, especially those who are ill or with limited resources, to avoid the risks of food poisoning.
"We are deeply concerned about poor people's health during the Tet. They easily suffer food poisoning because they can only afford to buy cheap food of poor quality," said Sr. Anna Nguyen Thi Hien, a doctor who runs a clinic in Hue City.
In 2017, the General Statistics Office recorded 3,374 food poisoning cases nationally, 22 of them fatal.
On Feb. 3, police in Ho Chi Minh City reportedly seized more than 10 metric tons of rotten pig meat that was collected from places outside the city. Police also caught workers at three small factories processing hundreds of kilograms of pig ears and viscera that had already started to rot or had no documents regarding its origin.
The traders said the intention was to process the meat in chemicals and then supply it to restaurants in the city.
During a Feb. 8 press conference, authorities from the coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau said they fined six factories for using pesticides in processing dried fish to preserve it from insects.
Police from Thua Thien-Hue Province, in the North Central coast region, said last month they found 20 incidents of food safety violations and product imitations.
Responding to these risks, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate sisters organized a Feb. 5 training course in food safety for 50 people with HIV/AIDS, volunteers and sisters at their Kim Long Charity Clinic in Hue City.
Hien, head of the clinic, said the course "aims to raise a growing awareness of food safety among participants and provide them with practical knowledge about nutrition and food safety so that they could maintain their good health and [that of] others."
During the course, Dr. Tran Thi Kim Pho, deputy of the Food Safety and Hygiene Department in Thua Thien-Hue Province, taught participants how to use information on food origins, producers and processors to identify whether food is unclean.
Participants learned how food could be adulterated with chemical agents, viruses, poisons, pesticides and chemicals from the soil.
They were also shown ways to preserve fresh food, and to process meat, fish, fruits and vegetables with proper hygiene. They learned how to prepare nutritious food for the sick, people with malnutrition, obese patients and pregnant women.
They were taught how consuming unclean food products can lead to cancer, other diseases and poisoning.
Pho warned that many people who sell food on the street process food without proper hygiene and store food near garbage cans. Some local factories are known to use chemical agents to process packaged food products.
She said that, in one December 2016 case, 128 people were hospitalized after eating bread from a street vendor, and 23 others were sent to hospitals for poisoning in a case in 2017. Both incidents happened in Hue City.
The doctor urged participants to seek medical treatment for intestinal parasites every six months, and to wash their hands before meals and food preparation.
A participant living with HIV said, "I learned much helpful information from the course. I hope I can buy and prepare good food products to serve my family during the Tet."
She said she and 22 others suffered poisoning after buying sticky rice cakes on a street in Hue last April. "I had severe diarrhea and other symptoms, and received treatment at the hospital for one week," she said.
Joseph Nguyen Van Hoang, a volunteer who visits and serves patients at their homes, said the course would help him show HIV/AIDS patients how to prepare nutritious food for themselves.
"If patients who are in poor health get food poisoning, it takes much time for them to recover," Hoang said.
Hien said she plans to hold another course for 100 people with HIV/AIDS from the neighboring province of Quang Tri after the Tet festival.
The nuns also held Tet celebrations for 400 people with HIV/AIDS at the clinic. The attendees watched cultural performances, played traditional games, enjoyed a great feast, and received blankets, cooking oil, milk, sugar, rice and sweets.
[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Vietnam.]