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Protecting Vietnamese street food

In Hanoi's Old Quarter, streets are packed with stalls where people can buy traditional meals (© NOODLES)
In Hanoi's Old Quarter, streets are packed with stalls where people can buy traditional meals

Since 1986, when economic reforms (Đổi Mới) were initiated, Vietnam has experienced rapid economic growth and today 24 per cent of jobs are in the informal economy. Informal street-vended foods (or street food) contribute to food security and to national economic growth by providing a regular source of income for millions of sellers, local producers and processors. It has been estimated that there are around 2,000 street food vendors just in Hanoi's Old Quarter.

Streets are densely packed with stalls where people can buy traditional meals, such as Phở (rice noodle soup with beef or chicken), Bánh Cuốn (steamed crepe containing ground pork), Gỏi Cuốn (fresh spring roll) and Bún Chả (grilled pork and cool noodles). Street food preserves local food cultures: since it provides inexpensive and ready-to-eat food, it can be defined as 'traditional fast food'.

Merging nutrition and safety

From a health viewpoint, a major advantage of street food is its role in nutritional security. Indeed, due to its daily, easy and widespread accessibility and diversified supply of meals, it represents an inexpensive means of meeting basic nutritional needs. A study among Vietnamese adolescents shows that street foods contributed 42 per cent of fruit and vegetables, 23 per cent of sodium and 21 per cent of energy, vitamin A, iron and zinc consumed per day.

The nutritional benefits of street food are undisputed, but the selling of food without proper sanitary measures raises serious concerns about the health of urban populations. According to statistics from the Vietnamese Ministry of Health, from 2004 to 2009, more than 1,000 food poisoning outbreaks occurred, involving both microbiological and chemical (pesticide) agents. Of these outbreaks, 26,500 people were affected and 298 people died.

From farm to fork

The nutritional benefits of street food are undisputed (© NOODLES)
The nutritional benefits of street food are undisputed

Food safety has to be guaranteed from 'farm to fork'. Following outbreaks of avian flu (1997 to 2003), Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles were established in Vietnam to help food businesses handle and produce food safely. In 2011, Vietnam enacted a Food Safety Law which outlined obligations of organisations and individuals in assuring food safety during the production and trading of foods, including street food. In December 2012, a circular was issued which specified food safety regulations specifically for food and street food establishments. Together with the new regulations, communication initiatives with food operators have fostered the culture and value of safely handling foods and preventing contamination.

To help provide 'sustainable food safety', the non-profit organisation, Network for Nutrition and Food Safety and Wholesomeness (NOODLES), promotes nutrition and food safety in developing countries by spreading up-to-date, understandable information to promote good practices, i.e. methods that have been proven to protect against targeted risks.

Sustainable food safety

Besides acute outbreaks, prolonged exposure to chemical contaminants in particular, may have long-term effects on health. Street food is susceptible to chemical/toxicological contamination at various stages. For instance, certain types of processing may expose street foods to carcinogenic contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (mainly from smoking or grilling) and acrylamide (from frying starch-rich foods). Inappropriate or worn food containers and kitchen utensils may lead to hazardous metals leaching into the food (e.g., aluminium, copper), improper storage of raw and cooked foods may favour the generation of mycotoxins, and displaying food may expose it to heavy metals or dioxins in urban dust.

NOODLES is encouraging Vietnamese street food vendors to implement good practices (© NOODLES)
NOODLES is encouraging Vietnamese street food vendors to implement good practices

In Vietnam, NOODLES has launched a campaign in collaboration with the Italian National Institute of Health and the Vietnamese National Institute of Veterinary Research of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to protect street food consumers from being exposed to hazardous food contaminants. Specifically, street food is closely linked to street life and habits, and NOODLES is working in Hanoi's Old Quarter as a model area to identify the most critical contamination risks, address ad hoc good practices and promote HACCP principles. NOODLES is also building the capacity of street food vendors through dissemination of street food-targeted information materials and supporting the implementation of a HACCP manual to manage food safety on the street.

The aim is to encourage Vietnamese street food vendors to implement good practices, such as use of gloves and masks to prevent microbiological risks, and selection and use of cooking utensils and storage of food to prevent chemical risks. The next step will be to expand the campaign to other areas with a high density of street food vending sites in Vietnam.

Written by: Ilaria Proietti, Dang Vu Hoang, Alberto Mantovani and Chiara Frazzoli

Date published: May 2013


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