New street food rules bound to fail

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   A street food seller in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

No open display of food.

All food vendors to undergo training in food safety and be certified as being in good health by hospitals.

All food to be served using gloves.

All ingredients used in making food to have valid documentation of origin like purchase invoices.

These are just a few stipulations contained in a Ministry of Health circular on street food that takes effect in less than two days (January 20) as part of efforts to promote food safety and hygiene on streets nationwide.

But there is no sign that any of these measures will be taken by street food sellers.

In fact, most people, including experts and officials, say the stringent regulations are highly impractical from an enforcement standpoint and unfair on poor people trying to eke out a living.

Circular 30 defines street food trading as ready-to-serve foods and beverages sold by hawkers in pushcarts or stalls at public places.

Apart from Circular 30, the government also issued a decree last month to handle violations in food safety that took effect on December 25. The decree stipulates fines of between VND500,000-VND3 million (US$24-144) for street food sellers breaching relevant regulations.

The two law documents have come at a time Vietnam's street food is gaining considerable international recognition.

Last year, Lonely Planet named the banh mi (sandwich) as one of the world's best street foods.

"The world's best sandwich" was described as a "light baguette grilled over coals, a smear of mayonnaise and a dollop of pâté, the crispy shell filled with meat, crunchy pickled vegetables and fresh herbs and seasoned with a few drops of soy sauce and a spicy chili condiment."

Also last year, Ho Chi Minh City was named by travel website Virtual Tourist as one of the Top Ten Cities for Street Food.

"In addition to Vietnamese standards of pho and banh mi some other notable dishes include com tam (cooked broken rice) with a fried egg on the top, bo la lot (seasoned beef in a leaf), and spring rolls," the website said.

But hygiene and food safety remain a concern. Virtual Tourist advised travelers to be careful and always choose popular, crowded stalls since hawker registration and street food health standards are not stringent in Vietnam.

According to the Vietnam Food Administration, there are more than 400,000 street food pushcarts and stalls nationwide.

The health ministry this month launched a nationwide campaign to inspect food safety nationwide.

Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien said: "We are determined to remove unhygienic practices like an eatery being located right on a manhole or a bucket of water used for washing hundreds of dishes and chopsticks."

However, many people feel that all these intentions as well as the new circular cannot be enforced because some of its conditions are highly impractical.

On January 10, the government website itself weighed in, noting that just ten days before the circular takes effect most owners of "sidewalk eateries" were not even aware of the document.

"Most food street sellers said they are not aware of the new regulations and that they would move around to avoid inspections," it said.

It cited Tran Thi Linh, owner of a bun cha eatery on Hanoi's Tran Quoc Toan Street as saying that most street food sellers are poor people who do not have enough money to buy new equipment for their stalls to meet the new requirements.

Bui Lien, owner of a bun oc stall on Hanoi's Hang Bong Street, was concerned about the regulation requiring them to prove the origin of the ingredients.

"The government should better manage raw ingredients instead," she said.

She said if relevant agencies are determined to enforce the regulation, she and many other sellers would not be able to meet them and would have to return to their hometown to work as farmers again.

"But it is impossible because my farmland has been revoked for an industrial zone," she added.

Vu Vinh Phu, chairman of the Hanoi Supermarket Association, told the Dat Viet (Viet Land) newspaper that the circular is tackling the symptoms and not the root of the problem.

"They should manage the farms to produce clean food instead of managing the tables. Many poor residents will have no means to earn any money, what should they do then?" he said.

Regarding the fines stipulated against violators, Huynh Le Thai Hoa, head of the HCMC Food Safety Agency, said it would be very difficult to impose them.

Maybe they will have to confiscate the food and pushcart to make up for the fine because the maximum fine of VND3 million is too much for many poor street food sellers, he said.

Huong, owner of a bun dau stall on Hanoi's Giang Vo Street, said she has been selling the food on the sidewalk near the office of the health ministry for the past five years.

The eatery is crowded all year round and she does not have any food safety certificate or business registration. She is likely to use an old way to cope with the new regulation.

"Sometimes I push tens of thousands of dong into the hands of the ward police [officer] so he would not force me to move away."

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