Vietnam street food still unsafe: studies

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Vietnam's street food may be renowned for being tasty, but authorities have been unable to curb the unhygienic practices of vendors

An unhygienic eatery at the corner of Hoang Cau and Vo Van Dung streets in Hanoi's Dong Da District. Experts point to unsafe street food as one of major causes of food poisoning. Photo by Thu Hang

Phan Tai Tin took the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technical Education entrance exam on July 3 suffering from a bellyache and feeling fatigued after eating street food the night before.

"I had diarrhea by 11 p.m. after eating a rice meal from a pushcart for dinner," the 22-year-old student from Khanh Hoa Province said, fearing his illness probably prevented him from doing well in the exam.

For many others, the consequences of food poisoning have been worse and even fatal, as the government is still struggling to improve the safety of street food.

According to the Food Safety Administration, 18 of 1,856 food poisoning cases proved fatal during the first half of this year. Relevant agencies have identified the causes which include microorganisms, natural poisons and toxic chemicals of about 75 percent of the cases.

Much to the public chargin, tests conducted by a food safety inspection group has confirmed this week that around 75 percent of tested rice noodle samples in Vietnam's beloved national dish pho contained banned carcinogenic chemicals.

Despite Vietnam being touted as having some of the world's best street foods, recent research indicates much of it is still unsafe.

Last year, CNN named Hanoi as one of Asia's top ten street food cities.

Also last year, Lonely Planet named Vietnam's banh mi (sandwich) as one of the world's best street foods. Travel website Virtual Tourist listed HCMC as one of the Top Ten Cities for Street Food.

However, according to a report released on July 23 at a conference on street beverages held by the Vietnam Institute of Dietary Supplements (VIDS), all eight samples of common street beverages including ice tea, sugar cane juice, lemon juice, failed to meet safety standards.

The report, conduct by the Vietnam Association of Functional Foods, found one sample containing lead, while the other seven samples contained Coliform bacteria and/or cadmium.

"Coliform bacteria, which can be found in human excrement, can cause diarrhea and serious [food] poisoning," said Ho Ba Do, deputy director of VIDS.

Tran Van Ky of the Vietnam Association of Food Science and Technology said most street food contains unsafe ingredients; is produced via unmonitored processes; and sold amid unhygienic conditions.

"Most street food vendors use industrial colors and chemicals that can cause liver, kidney and neurological diseases including cancer," he said.

Unsanitary statistics

Despite many warnings and campaigns to improve the safety of street food, the dangers remain prevalent, with a high percentage of street food testing positive for dangerous contaminants.

Huynh Le Thai Hoa, director of the HCMC Food Safety Agency, said his agency collected street food samples in April, 23 percent of which were contaminated with microorganisms.

"Street food sellers are mostly poor people and it is difficult to improve food safety by fining them," he said.

According to the Food Safety Administration, major reasons for the increase in food poisoning cases lately has been the hot weather, in which foods rot easily. Additionally, food of poor quality and unsafe food additives being smuggled into Vietnam has been on the rise.

Over the first half this year, food officials inspected nearly 200,000 eateries of all kinds, 42,000 of which failed to meet safety standards. Nearly 3,000 of 16,500 food samples were also deemed unsafe.

The Food Safety Administration and the Vietnam Labor Confederation launched a report on June 30 revealing that more than 40 percent of 12,295 street food samples contained toxic fungi and up to 62 percent contained Coliform bacteria.

Unheeded regulations

In a latest effort to tackle food poisoning, the Ministry of Health has instructed provincial authorities to intensify its efforts to improve food safety, especially street food, and eateries located in tourist destinations and festivals, the government website reported on July 23.

According to the instruction, provincial leaders are responsible for making sure food producers and traders are acting responsibly.

The health ministry issued a circular that took effect on January 20, which stipulates that street vendors not have open food displays; food handlers must use gloves; and the origin of ingredients must be documented. Furthermore, all vendors must undergo a food safety training course and receive a clear bill of health from a doctor.

However, Vietweek found many traders are ignoring the new regulations.

Many eateries near the K and Central Children hospitals in Hanoi display food in baskets place directly on the sidewalk. Bowls and chopsticks appear dirty, while sellers touch the food with their bare hands.

At the corner of Hoang Cau and Vo Van Dung streets in Hanoi's Dong Da District, a woman displays bun dau mam tom (rice vermicelli with fried tofu and shrimp paste) right on the sidewalk. The eatery remains popular despite the fact that flies tend to surround it.

"I only sell around noontime when the inspectors don't work, so I don't have to worry about them," she said.

"Anyway, I have been selling here for nearly ten years and no one has asked me to obtain a food safety certificate or take a medical exam."

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