Vietnam's lax food safety protocols endanger diners with mass poisoning risks

May 20, 2024 | 04:32 pm PT
Nguyen Manh Hung Chef
Last week, I had quite a packed schedule, with no time to do physical exercise and cook. I ended up having more fast food than I would like to.

As a chef myself, I chose the more well-known fast-food chains, just hoping I could fill my belly and avoid food poisoning. At least those well-known fast-food chains typically have professional kitchen protocols, proper staff training and good investments in kitchen equipment to make the safest food possible.

I have never highly regarded international fast food. Compared to banh mi, Vietnam’s world-renowned baguettes which have divine taste and are filling, very fast, and cheap, how can international fast food compete?

But choosing a reliable banh mi place is not an easy task. Banh mi is very widely available, and every other corner in Vietnam has one stall. It is fast, cheap, and very accessible for a quick meal. It is simple to make and is not often subjected to any food inspection by the government.

In 2017, when I first visited Taiwan, my friend took me to visit local markets near Taipei. There is one famous and rather expensive local market, well-preserved for its cultural heritage. Local government mandated that the market, though keeping its original design, would be surrounded by glass walls and be air-conditioned to keep a stable temperature, which not only makes it more comfortable for tourists visiting the market but also better preserves the food of the market stalls.

The market became more and more expensive due to these changes. Compared to Hanoi, readers could imagine famous local markets like Thanh Ha or Hang Be markets, two tiny but old markets in the center of Hanoi, famous for serving high-quality but expensive food, receiving the same treatments. The costs would be significantly hiked.

Vietnam is a developing country with rapidly expanding supermarkets and professionalizing food retail businesses. However, Vietnamese citizens still maintain the tradition of buying fresh foods at local wet markets, which is a part of the local routine, culture, and lifestyle. A Vietnamese family typically visits a wet market several times a day to buy fresh products, compared to the one trip to the supermarket per week in most developed countries.

As a chef, I’m always a bit hesitant regarding the food safety of wet markets in Vietnam. While they can be good in taste, most foods being sold at wet markets face some risks of bacterial contamination due to uncontrolled temperature for preservation, which can easily lead to food poisoning for eaters.

This is especially prone to food poisoning in the summer in Vietnam, in which temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius, a favorable temperature for bacteria to grow and spread.

Food from wet markets are prevalent not just for families but also for professional food and beverage businesses. Owners of banh mi stalls everywhere buy food, especially raw meat, from such wet markets with no food safety certification. While families and businesses may say that they have been buying foods from wet markets for generations without any issues, they still face a significant risk of food poisoning.

In 2024, there have been several cases of food poisoning at banh mi stalls. Most recently, on April 30, over 530 people were poisoned after eating banh mi from a stall in Long Khanh City in the southern Dong Nai Province. Preliminary investigations showed that patients in this case were exposed to salmonella, e.coli, and other harmful bacteria.

The ingredients of the stall were bought from wet markets and several small-scale local food producers.

The local authorities are requesting the food stall to provide proof of purchases to trace the origins of the food ingredients, a common requirement for more established restaurants. A single ingredient that is not traceable would lead to the restaurant receiving significant fines. Most restaurants are very familiar with this routine procedure.

The same procedure is not the norm for local food stalls. Therefore, once the stall’s customers are exposed to food poisoning, the stall cannot trace the origins of any of its ingredients.

Small banh mi stalls in Vietnam are now serving food to not only local but also international customers. While local customers are demanding in flavors, they are quite relaxed and careless about food preservation, packaging, and safety. In contrast, international customers, while they typically have a higher standard of food safety, they tend to be more accepting while traveling and eat most of what the local community offers.

For customers and local authorities alike, the less stringent they are about food safety, the higher the risk of the local people facing food poisoning.

Food stalls like Banh Mi Bang that was involved in the mass poisoning case in Dong Nai, while small in its establishment, still serve up to 1,100 servings every day, despite not embracing food safety protocols as simple as separating utensils for raw and cooked foods. Such lax food safety protocols expose the stalls to high risks of food safety violations.

If just one employee makes a mistake in food preparation, thousands of customers can be hospitalized. It is impossible to consider the social impacts of such businesses to be small any more.

While we can acknowledge the difficulties of managing and enforcing regulations on small businesses like this, being difficult is not being impossible. With one stall serving thousands of customers every day, one small business can carry significant social impacts.

If business owners do not have the capability and knowledge to operate their businesses responsibly, they should be stopped to prevent a social backlash.

*Nguyen Manh Hung is a chef and food author.

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