In Vietnam, a Cuban rat poison finds new market

Banned in the west, Communist allies Vietnam and Cuba cooperate on salmonella rat poison

Associated Press
In Vietnam, a Cuban rat poison finds new market

View photo

In this Tuesday, May 21, 2013 photo, a Vietnamese salesman displays rat poison contained salmonella bacteria in Hanoi, Vietnam. The rat bait is banned in the United States on human safety grounds, but produced and used in Vietnam and exported to Africa. Rat poisons normally come with warnings against human consumption and medical directions about what to do if accidentally eaten. Not so “Biorat,” a bait produced in Vietnam by a Cuban-state owned company that earns foreign exchange for the Castro government. The company claims the salmonella strain it includes is “harmless” to everything - humans, the environment, pets and other animal species - apart from rats. That is disputed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. federal government agency, and other international health institutions including the World Health Organization. (APPhoto/Chris Brummitt)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- His wares banned in much of the world, the Vietnamese salesman hawking a rat poison laced with salmonella sought to prove the bait was as safe as claimed. He sliced open a packet with a pair of rusty scissors, dipped his finger into the sticky, bad-smelling rice, brought out a few grains and then chewed them gingerly.

"It tastes a little bitter, that's all," said Nong Minh Suu. He chose not to swallow the unhulled grains, instead spitting them out after a few seconds before lighting a cigarette. "When rats eat this, 100 percent of them will be killed. It is absolutely safe to human health."

Rat poisons normally come with warnings against human consumption and medical directions about what to do if accidentally eaten. Not so "Biorat," a bait produced in Vietnam by a Cuban-state owned company that earns foreign exchange for the Castro government.

The company claims the salmonella strain it includes is "harmless" to everything — humans, the environment, pets and other animal species — apart from rats. That is disputed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. federal government agency, and other international health institutions including the World Health Organization.

Biorat's production and sale in Vietnam is a legacy of the cozy ties between Cuba and Vietnam, two nations on opposite sides of the world but whose leaders are bound together by a public embrace of Communism. By operating here, the company, called Labiofam, can import ingredients free of any complications stemming from the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba that has been in force since the early 1960s.

It also gives it a base to try and enter new markets in Southeast Asia. The company is currently installing a new, automated production line at its Vietnam factory in preparation for a push in the region, where demand for rat poison is growing along with its population of rats, which nibble their way through at least 15 percent of the region's annual rice crop.

Labiofam produces an array of products alongside Biorat, from cancer treatments made from the stings of scorpions, larvacides that target mosquitoes, pesticides, even a probiotic range of yoghurt. They are marketed across the developing world, mostly in African and South American countries, where the company leverages government-to-government links forged in the Cold War and by the ongoing deployment of teams of Cuban health workers.

Salmonella, the name given to a group of bacteria, is the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States. In 2011, it was responsible for around 1 million illnesses and at least 29 deaths, according to the CDC. Most people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. It is especially dangerous for young children and the elderly.

A strain of salmonella was used in rat poisons in Europe until the 1960s, but it was linked to several deaths and illnesses in humans, triggering the ban. Labiofam says it has isolated a different strain to that used in those preparations, but the CDC says its research shows it is the same. A 2004 report by the American agency even warned that it could be used in a bioterrorism attack.

"There are too many questions, why would you want to use something that has not been cleared by the CDC," said Grant Singleton, an expert on rodent biology and management at the International Rice Research Institute. "Its efficacy is questionable. I have not seen anything published in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific papers to demonstrate it's effective."

Singleton also pointed to an ingredient in the poison that its makers rarely mention: a small amount of warfarin, a chemical rodenticide in its own right, and suggested that it could be the agent that is killing rats. Company marketing literature refers to the chemical only as a "catalyst" though on the packet it is listed as warfarin.

The company said criticism of its product was a result of American hostility to the country and commercial jealousy. There are no documented deaths or illnesses as a result of using the product in Vietnam or other countries.

"It is quite complicated, but this all comes down to politics," said Gustavo Junco Matos, the head of the company in Vietnam, in an interview at a trade stand in Hanoi where the product was on display next to Cuba's better known exports: rum and cigars. "Ours is a biological product and only causes damages to rats."

The Vietnamese government, which controls all media in the country and doesn't allow for open discussion and criticism of its decisions, acknowledged that the product was banned in some countries, but said there was nothing to worry about. "We use it and find that it's effective and it's good in Vietnamese conditions," said Nguyen Xuan Hong, director of the plant protection department at the agriculture ministry.

Biorat's backers admit it has disadvantages: it is more expensive than most of its chemical competitors and needs to be refrigerated, adding to costs for distributors. But it has captured market share in several regions, something helped by government subsidies toward its purchase when it first hit the market 10 years ago, according to Suu.

There is so far little sign of Biorat getting much traction in Asian markets, even with the backing of the Cuban diplomats who are tasked with promoting it via its embassies in the region. Biorat demonstrations have been held in the Philippines and Indonesia, but so far its sales push has only resulted in one import license, that of Malaysia, according to the company.

Most of the 2,000 tones the factory and 100 workers produce each year is shipped to Angola, Biorat's number one market and a country that the Castro regime gave massive military, humanitarian and development support to from its 1960s independence struggle onwards. The company declined to reveal its global revenues.

At least one other Labiofam product has run into problems. The marketing of its larvacide as a major weapon in the battle against malaria in Africa has been criticized by international health organizations, which says larvacides have only a limited role to play.

"They do a very good job in getting governments to pay a lot of money for products that appear to be deficient," said Maria Werlau, a Cuban-American analyst from the U.S.-based Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy and a critic of President Raul Castro's government. "You don't have the same kind of accountability (in Cuba) that there is in other countries. There is no way to scrutinize what is going on. That's why they market these products in the developing world."

Rats have been feasting in Asia paddy fields since famers began cultivating it around 12,000 years ago, but an increase in the number of yearly harvests in many regions has meant more for them to feed on. As rat numbers increase, so does the economic cost: a loss of just 7 percent of Asia's rice crop is enough rice to feed 245 million people for 12 months.

Farmers in Vietnam often build plastic fences around their plots, which can protect them but only shifts the problem to neighbors. Trapping and electrocution, supposedly banned because of the risks posed to farmers of accidental electrocution, are common, but for many farmers poison is the weapon of choice, either routinely or when an infestation strikes.

Cao Thi Huong has been using Biorat for more than 10 years, spending around $30 on treating her small plot two times a year. She lives close to Suu's house, where boxes of Biorat are kept in large refrigerators at the back of the garden close to a chicken coop. "Personally speaking, I think it's better than the chemical," she said.


View Comments (15)

Recommended for You

  • Tycoon buys 30 Rolls-Royces for Macau hotel

    A Hong Kong tycoon has placed the biggest ever order for Rolls-Royce cars, agreeing to buy 30 Phantoms to chauffeur guests at a luxury resort he's building in the global gambling capital of Macau. Stephen Hung's $20 million purchase surpasses the 14 Phantoms bought by Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel in…

    Associated Press
  • Please Don't Retire At 62.

    Just take 1 look at this chart. You'll see why.

    AdChoicesThe Motley FoolSponsored
  • Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia

    Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia MOSCOW (AP) — The arrest of a Russian telecoms and oil tycoon has sent shock waves through the country's business community, with some fearing a return to the dark days of a decade ago, when the Kremlin asserted its power by imprisoning the country's…

    Associated Press
  • Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks

    Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks While investors gear up for Alibaba Group 's (BABA) hotly anticipated initial public offering, don't forget about other Chinese stocks that are worth keeping an eye on. Today's Young Guns Screen of

    Investor's Business Daily
  • As Fed takes baby steps, Cramer's trick for profit

    In turn, Cramer says making money in the market, involves looking at the environment through the lens of the Fed. "The trick is to remember that they speak for the common person," Cramer said. "The Fed wants the common person to make money." With that backdrop always in mind, Cramer says it becomes…

  • Costco Stores in Canada to Stop Taking American Express

    “The credit card relationship between American Express and Costco Wholesale Canada will not be renewed when it expires” on Dec. 31, the company said today in an e-mail to Canadian customers. The message was attributed to Lorelle Gilpin, vice president of marketing and membership for Costco…

  • Play

    Citi, Bank of America Offer Discounted Mortgages

    Citigroup and Bank of America will offer mortgages at discounted interest rates to help borrowers with low incomes or subprime credit. AnnaMaria Andriotis joins MoneyBeat. Photo: Getty.

    WSJ Live
  • "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savings

    "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savingsBy the time she hit her late 40s, Toni Eugenia wasn’t sure she would ever be able to retire. Eugenia, 56, a pharmacy technician who lived in Houston, was nearly $200,000 in debt and

    Yahoo Finance
  • 10 Historical Films True to History

    Sometimes history is worth repeating... as long as it's on the big screen. These movies were based off of real events and actually made learning fun.

    AdChoicesAnswers NowSponsored
  • CNBC Anchor Calls Out Fed-Hater Bill Fleckenstein In Startling Shouting Match

    CNBC Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital appeared on CNBC's Futures Now program on Tuesday. Futures Now host Jackie DeAngelis came out swinging, asking Fleckenstein right at the top if he was willing to admit that he had misunderstood monetary policy. Sounding taken aback, Fleckenstein…

    Business Insider
  • Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court

    Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court CHICAGO (AP) — Federal prosecutors seeking to put the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies in prison for hiding millions in Swiss bank accounts told appellate court judges Wednesday that the toymaker's sentence of probation threatens to erode the…

    Associated Press
  • Apple to unveil new iPads, operating system on Oct. 21 : report

    The company plans to unveil the sixth generation of its iPad and the third edition of the iPad mini, as well as its operating system OS X Yosemite, which has undergone a complete visual overhaul, the Internet news website said. Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment. The iPad is…

  • Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks

    Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks Gilead Sciences (GILD) shares are backsliding Wednesday on news that the patient drop-out rate for hepatitis C drug Sovaldi is quadruple that of clinical trials. In addition, the biotech's Phase 2 study results

    Investor's Business Daily
  • Play

    What the Fed Meeting Means for Bonds

    Janet Yellen & Co. are expected to hint at their timetable for raising interest rates. Here's how investors should prepare ahead of the meeting.

    WSJ Live
  • Margaritaville casino owners seek bankruptcy

    The owner of Biloxi's Margaritaville casino has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, only hours before a hearing where the landlord aimed to seize the property. The filing by MVB Holding LLC in U.S. Don Dornan, a lawyer for landlord Clay Point LLC, said the company had planned to ask…

    Associated Press
  • Show Us Your Poker Face!

    Fresh Deck Poker is the hottest poker game around. There are thousands of gorgeous avatars and hundreds of different games to choose from.

    AdChoicesFresh Deck PokerSponsored
  • Here's What Mark Cuban Wishes He Knew About Money In His 20s

    Cuban is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban is generous with his advice. When we asked him what he wishes he'd known about money in his 20s, he said:

    Business Insider
  • Embraer to sell 50 E-175 jets to Republic in $2.1 billion deal

    Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's third largest commercial planemaker, said on Wednesday it booked a firm order from U.S. The deal, which will be included in Embraer's order book for the third quarter, is valued at $2.1 billion, the planemaker said in a securities filing. The planes will be operated…

  • SHOE COMPANY: Our CEO Just Disappeared And Most Of The Money Is Gone

    "and like that: he's gone." This is an actual headline from a company press release: "CEO and COO disappeared, most of the company's cash missing." (Via FastFT) In a statement, German-based shoe company Ultrasonic said its CFO,  Chi Kwong Clifford Chan, has been unable to reach the company's CEO,…

    Business Insider
  • Billionaire Investor Says Chinese People Work Harder And Western Companies Could Face Deep Trouble After Alibaba IPO

    Michael Moritz, the chairman of VC firm Sequoia Capital, is a huge fan of Chinese internet companies and reiterated his enthusiasm for the Chinese market in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. The billionaire investor described the Alibaba IPO as a “major landmark event” that is as…

    Business Insider
  • Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More

    Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More Stocks were firm on Wednesday morning ahead of the FOMC meeting outcome. Tuesday’s rally may have sparked higher interest again, and investors are looking for bargains

    24/7 Wall St.
  • 6 Things Debt Collectors Wish You Knew

    The work debt collectors do is not popular, and has become increasingly derided by those who don’t like what we do or simply don’t know the facts about debt collection. Too often, debt collection is painted with a broad brush to create a portrait that isn’t accurate, and doesn’t properly educate…
  • 10 Cheapest & Best Places to Live In The US

    Looking for a beautiful and affordable place to live in the US? Read our top 10 cheap & best places to live here!

  • Boeing may have outfoxed Musk, but it could have bigger problems

    Elon Musk is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of the 21st Century, but he was outsized an old school aerospace giant. Boeing won the bulk of NASA’s contract for a space taxi.  One of the other companies vying for the deal is SpaceX, the company headed by Tesla’s Musk, will get a…

    Talking Numbers