Cuban Rat Poison Finds New Market In Vietnam, Despite Health Concerns

Demand for rat poison has never been higher in Vietnam.

And that means big business for "Biorat," a poison produced in Vietnam by a Cuban-state owned company.

Rats have been feasting in Asia paddy fields since farmers 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.

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.

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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.

Rat poisons normally come with warnings against human consumption and medical directions about what to do if accidentally eaten. Not so "Biorat" ―  the company claims the salmonella strain it includes is "harmless" to everything apart from rats. That is disputed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other international health institutions, including the World Health Organization.

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.

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."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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