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Street vendors vexed by food safety regulations

Update: May, 18/2014 - 21:12

Eating out: Street food could become a safer option with a new rule requiring them to hold food hygiene and safety certificates after May 26, 2014. — VNS Photo Doan Tung

by Lan Anh

Though Nguyen Thi Hoa – owner of a shop – selling creme caramel, yogurt and sponge cakes in Ha Noi's Cau Giay District-has not received training in food hygiene, she was given a food hygiene certificate three years ago.

As the shop has many frequent customers, its products are quickly sold out as soon as they are produced, exempting Hoa from date labelling on her pre-packaged food.

"I am busy, so I have not attended any training in food hygiene, neither did many shop owners living in my neighbourhood," Hoa said.

Like Hoa, other street vendors and shop owners selling sticky rice, pork and pate sandwich and pho (Vietnamese soup made of rice noodles and thin slices of beef or chicken) in her neighbourhood were often invited to attend training classes on food hygiene and safety.

Yet, they raised doubts over whether the training brings about any effective results.

"What is important is whether the attenders can gain complete knowledge about food hygiene and safety during the course," Hoa queried, citing the case of a shop owner selling pho next to her house, who gained almost nothing but was required to pay VND200,000 (US$9.5) at the end of a training session.

"The shop owner told me that she no longer wanted to join the training although she was called several times thereafter," Hoa added.

Under a newly issued circular providing guidelines for attending sessions and taking up examinations on food hygiene and safety, food shop owners, food producers and traders must undergo an examination in food safety before they are given food hygiene and safety certificates.

This regulation will come to effect on 26 May.

Although a punitive sanction has not yet been issued to make the circular effective, food producers and traders will be punished after 26 May if they have not obtained the certificate, said Food Hygiene and Safety Department Director Tran Quang Trung.

He pointed out that many farmers are not trained in proper farming methods. Thus, they do not know when they should start harvesting their crops after spraying insecticide.

Under Circular 13/2014, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development takes responsibility to control food safety on cereals, vegetables and fruits, tea and coffee. The ministry is also responsible for milk, eggs, fresh meat and animal feed, as well as for sea food, genetically modified products, sausage and ham.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade is in charge of liquor, beer, refresher and milk products (excluding micronutrient supplemented milk products), as well as powder, starch and sweet.

The Ministry of Health oversees canned drinks, mineral drinks, functional foodstuffs and additives, among others.

The circular regulates that food producers and traders are required by law to hold food safety certificates. The Food Hygiene and Safety Department (Ministry of Health) and the National Agro-Forestry-Fisheries Quality Assurance Department (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) are responsible for providing food safety certificates. — VNS

Some farmers tend to harvest one day after spraying insecticide on their crops, causing food poisoning, he added.

On the one hand, Trung is optimistic about the positive outcome of training and guiding food business operators, food producers and traders on food hygiene and safety.

"Through proper guidance about regulations on food safety and hygiene, they will be able to prepare and sell hygienic food," he remarked.

On the other hand, Trung admitted that it is very difficult to ensure that 100 per cent of the food producers and traders will take up examinations to obtain food hygiene and safety certificates.

"We have set a target to assist 70-80 per cent in obtaining food certificates, though it is harder still to ensure high training efficiency as many trainees are street vendors," Trung added.

As planned, local authorities in the precincts and communes nationwide will invite food shop owners and food producers to attend training classes on food hygiene and safety.

For the large shops and restaurants employing a considerable number of staff, Trung said lecturers will visit these places to provide guidance on food safety and issue a common food safety certificate in recognition of their collective participation.

"The above-mentioned method is being applied in the United States and many other countries. In addition, these lecturers are able to answer queries about food safety and certify for qualified businesses online. Viet Nam has not yet been able to do so, but we will apply this method in the future," Trung claimed.

Unfeasible plan

The Law on Food Hygiene and Safety regulates that the ministries of Health, Industry and Trade, Agriculture and Rural Development are in charge of food control.

This has resulted in an overlap among ministries in managing food products. Though the item is a liquor product, the Ministry of Health takes responsibility to grant production licenses for businesses trading in tonic wine while the Ministry of Industry and Trade manage liquor and beer in general.

Similarly, the Ministry of Health oversees micronutrient-supplemented milk products, whereas the Ministry of Industry and Trade is in charge of residual number of milk products.

Issuance of Circular 13/2014, meanwhile, is hailed as being able to clearly devolve responsibility upon certain authoritative office to manage a certain product and its production establishment, contributing to avoid overlap in management and cross-check between ministries at different levels.

Implementing the regulations is still considered insufficient, however.

According to the director of Research and Training Centre for Community Development, Tran Tuan, it is important to have a standard model to safely control food products. But no model of safety remains in Viet Nam.

He cited an example of what the definition of a clean and safe bun cha (grilled pork with rice vermicelli) shop is, which can be set as a base by owners of grilled pork shops to run their business.

"It is difficult to execute a general guidance when food producers and traders have a limited knowledge of food safety. Additionally, food hygiene is a diversified issue," Tuan stated.

He also raised concern over the ability of local authorities in communes and districts in executing food safety programmes and recommending to pilot the grant of certificates to food producers and traders in some areas before expanding it to a large scale.

"Food quality in many supermarkets remains unstable although all their products are labelled and attached with receipts. When we are unable to fix such a small issue, how are we going to overcome bigger issues," Tuan noted.

Doctor Nguyen Son of the Institute of World Economics and Politics said that it is unfeasible to certify several tens of thousands of street vendors with food safety certificates, though he agreed that food businesses need to be armed with knowledge of safety.

"We had better consider whether we have enough abilities to implement regulation on all food producers and traders. If not, it is possible to distribute leaflets and documents on food safety rather than asking people to pay and register for examinations to obtain food safety certificates," Son pointed out. — VNS

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