Food Safety in HCMC: Should We Just Leave it Be?

food - Saigon/HCMC: June 29, 2016

Until recently, I knew little about food safety, apart from the obvious fact that most food poisoning cases are a result of poor hygiene. And most of it began, I thought, with washing practices and use of purified water for cleaning, cooking and drinking. I essentially felt that hand cleaning was most important here where tap water is often used to clean our rearmost.

Hand Cleaning

Wikipedia states food safety “is a scientific discipline describing handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness... the tracks within this line of thought are safety between industry and the market and then between the market and the consumer.”

Sounds intricate, doesn’t it?

While perusing the subject, I wondered how many suffer from food poisoning? Is this really an issue? Sadly, there is no online data for Vietnam or HCMC. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded that, annually, for the U.S. alone, 76 million cases of foodborne illness lead to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths! This for a country considered to be advanced with regard to Food Safety Standards and Regulations.

Street FoodSource: Andrien Hu

It led me to wonder what we could do to limit hazards. Here are WHO’s recommendations:

  1. Prevent contaminating food with pathogens spread from people, pets and pests.

  2. Separate raw and cooked foods to prevent contaminating the cooked foods.

  3. Cook foods for the appropriate length of time and at temperatures to kill pathogens.

  4. Store food at the proper temperature, and use safe water and raw materials.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded that, annually, for the U.S. alone, 76 million cases of foodborne illness lead to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths

It isn’t so simple. My good friend Giovanni Parrella, who is an expert, and the Executive Chef of The Reverie Hotel, is currently applying for HACCP, the best known international food standard certification. He said it will take him at least a year and a half to complete since food safety is quite complex, and requires a degree and/or ample experience for international standards to be achieved and maintained. He strongly emphasized that the management must be committed to execute these policies within the workforce. Also, clear planning and goals must be set. But without an appropriate budget for the system to be created and implemented, progress would be limited. He also said that these procedures are developed, implemented and maintained by well trained personnel.

As of today, HCMC has 2,135 restaurants on TripAdvisor plus another probable 10,000+ joints and street vendors. How many are aware about food safety related issues? Is it naive to want a concept whose implementation seems tough? Is Vietnamese culture inclined towards such standards and how to change such a big part of culture?

Pho - Street FoodSource: Derkoensen

While we wait for changes in the F&B industry, here are simple tips to help control the risk of food poisoning. For the overly sensitive, simply boil it, bake it, peel it or forget it. Also, wash your hands and cutlery with lemon or vinegar before you eat. If you consider pho exotic, then your stomach could have difficulty adjusting to the local cuisine. Similarly, a bowl of beef noodles can contain up to 25 ingredients which can create a whirlwind of spices in your stomach! 

Street Food SaigonSource: Maxime Guilbot 

As of today, HCMC has 2,135 restaurants on TripAdvisor plus another probable 10,000+ joints and street vendors. How many are aware about food safety related issues?

No matter how nice the food is, if the place isn’t busy or doesn’t look too popular with people, then forget it. Also, a place with few menu options ensures they only focus on achieving the best quality on their offerings of choice. Go for places, especially Vietnamese ones, where you can see the food being cooked. Use your senses as much as possible. With the exception of fermented fish/shrimp paste, if it smells bad, then it’s most likely spoiled. Food should look, smell and taste good. If it does not, there’s no shame in not eating it. Observe if there is a specific cashier whose hands don’t come into contact with both money and food.

It is critical for public officials to invest more in better water treatment and distribution systems so our tap water becomes drinkable. Also, a strong communication campaign targeting the masses and food merchants could help solve the current cold chain concerns. Till the government tackles these issues, let's be wiser in deciding where and what to eat. There is no fun in putting one’s health at risk by choosing to eat anything and everything.

Cover by Michael Stern