Food safety concerns acknowledged but ignored in Vietnam even as nation's street food receives worldwide acclaim
A street food vendor sells pho and various other dishes in Hanoi. Experts have called for better control over food safety including the use of agrochemicals even as Vietnamese cuisine garners international praise.
Bui Thi Lan never hesitates to go out and have street food with her friends in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
The dish decides her choice, not where and how it is served, says the 28-year-old employee of the city's Health Department.
"I just had hu tieu (a kind of noodle soup) sold in an alley near my office this morning and have a queasy stomach," she admits, but this is not going to put her off street food which she readily acknowledges could be unsafe and unhygienic.
Asked why a health department employee like her still persists in eating unsafe food, Lan says it is difficult to know which places sell food that is really safe.
While she felt many eateries "would do anything for profit," she did not feel compelled to change her eating habits.
"You will not die right away from eating such food, but you will surely die of starvation without eating," she said wryly.
Millions of residents are like Lan. They do not mind eating street food as long as it is tasty and not expensive.
Even if they are aware of the double danger involved with street food unhygienic preparation and service as well as the use of vegetables and meat contaminated with poisonous agrochemicals that could lead to gradual food poisoning and dangerous diseases they feel they do not have much of a choice.
"Everyone eats at these places, like me," Lan said.
Loose management by agricultural officials has resulted in several food poisoning and contamination scandals over the last few years.
In the most recent case, animal feed and pork was found to contain the beta-agonist growth promoting agent that causes increased heart rate, indigestion and various conditions in humans.
The exposure has significantly affected the pig husbandry industry, with many housewives avoiding the purchase of pork and restaurant goers shifting to other meats.
Dang Thi Thanh, a small trader in HCMC, said she has shifted to buying pork from supermarkets because she believes the meats sold there do not contain the growth agent.
"My mother-in-law has gone vegetarian because she says all meat and fish contain chemicals. But I think the vegetables are contaminated with pesticides and herbicides as well," she said.
On Monday (April 2), the Health Ministry's Food Safety Department said there have been six cases of food poisoning nationwide in March that sent 134 people to hospital. But the department has recorded no deaths.
Three of the cases were caused by bacteria, one by ciguatoxin (a seafood toxin acquired by eating fish that have consumed toxic single-celled marine organisms called dinoflagellates or fish that have consumed other fish that have become toxic), another by alcohol and one by reasons as yet unknown.
In the first quarter of 2012, 16 cases of food poisoning have hospitalized 254 people. Three others died.
Huynh Le Thai Hoa, director of the HCMC Food Safety Agency, said there has been no survey done on the number of street food vendors and roadside eateries.
But a recent study by the Pham Ngoc Thach Medical University found up to 72 percent of sidewalk eateries were selling vegetables containing pathogens.
The survey of 100 sidewalk eateries and restaurants found the proportion of contamination in sidewalk eateries 2.4 times higher than in restaurants.
Hoa said street food is banned under the Food Safety Law but it is difficult to enforce it. As a result, vendors still do business without doing any course on food safety, she said. Doing a course on food safety is required by law for restaurant owners and chefs, but there is no information on how many establishments and individuals comply with it.
A decision that took effect on April 5 has made it more difficult to carry out food safety surveillance as it stipulates that food inspections can only be conducted by provincial agencies and not by those at lower administrative levels as was allowed previously, Hoa said.
Nguyen Lan Dung, chairman of the Vietnam Union of Biology Associations, said several cases of toxic chemicals used in food have been discovered over the past years.
"Virtually all vegetables and fruits are contaminated with pesticides to a certain degree. Many farmers use banned chemicals that have been smuggled into Vietnam while others do not follow instructions on using pesticides," he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in a recent interview on food safety.
He said under current regulations, different ministries are in charge of managing food products. There should only be one agency in charge of food safety, he said.
Over the last several years, Vietnamese cuisine, especially street food, has attracted considerable international attention and acclaim.
While many Vietnamese dishes available on the street have been listed as being among the world's best, tourism agencies here have been urging better food safety practices to promote them to international visitors.
Most tourism agencies in HCMC do not include street food in their tours for foreign tourists.
Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai, director of the Fiditour travel agency, said her company only organizes trips to Ben Thanh Market during the day and not in the evening when the night market is open with many food stalls.
"We book meals at restaurants with food safety certificates. Most companies do not take their clients to the night market or small eateries despite the fact that they might be serving better food," she said.
"Concerned authorities should manage street food better to promote them better among foreign tourists," she said. At present, street food is mainly enjoyed by domestic tourists and foreign backpackers, she said.
An American expat who has been in Vietnam for 17 years said he would still recommend that tourists enjoy Vietnam's street food.
"Street food in Vietnam can be very good but one has to judge the cleanliness of the establishment," said the expat, who did not want to be named.
"How close is the cooking area to the street and traffic? Where are the dishes and utensils washed? What is the source of the washing water, is it changed often or reused? Boiled or cooked foods are safer than food that sits for long hours in the sun and carry the risk of bacteria. How healthy do the cooks/servers look? How busy is the place? If it is constantly busy, it is probably safe," he said
"These days I usually only do banh mi op la or pâté. Tourists should certainly sample street food in Vietnam as street life is so much a part of the country."
GREAT FOOD DESTINATION
In a March 11 article on the Los Angeles Times, Jessica Gelt described Hanoi as "a destination for foodies" with pho, bun cha and other delicacies. In 2010, the website Sherman's Travel ranked Hanoi as the No. 2 foodie destination in the world, behind Barcelona, Spain, and ahead of Rome and Tokyo.
An article in the UK newspaper Guardian on February 24 described the Vietnamese banh mi as the world's best sandwich.
"It begins with a light baguette grilled over coals. After a smear of mayonnaise and a dollop of pâté, the crispy shell is filled with meat, crunchy pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. It is then typically seasoned with a few drops of soy sauce and a spicy chili condiment," it wrote.
In January, the Food and Wine magazine, listed Ho Chi Minh City as one
of the world's best cities for street food.
"Saigon's street foods range from the savory soup known as pho and the French colonialinfluenced banh mi to regional southern specialties like banh xeo (stuffed pancakes) and canh chua (fish soup). A trip to the megasize Ben Thanh Market could yield spring rolls, spices and a knockoff handbag," it said.