Making street food safe in Viet Nam

Interview with Dr Nguyen Thanh Phong, Director of the Viet Nam Food Administration (VFA)

2 April 2015

South-east Asia is known for its astonishing variety of inexpensive and delicious street food. In Viet Nam, eating street food is a local way of life. From quick snacks to entire meals, the Vietnamese capital Hanoi offers it all on the pavement. Over a bowl of Pho Bo (a typical Vietnamese beef noodle soup) WHO sat down with Dr Nguyen Thanh Phong, Director-General of the Viet Nam Food Administration, to learn how Viet Nam makes its tasty street food safe for consumption.

How has the revised food safety law impacted street food in Viet Nam?

VFA Director-General Dr Nguyen Thanh Phong talks about Food Safety in Viet Nam, Hanoi, Viet Nam.
WHO Viet Nam/E Eraly

In 2011, Viet Nam adopted a revised food safety law which specifically mentioned street food for the very first time. The law provides clear guidelines on how to operate a street food stall. Five conditions need to be met:

  • the stall must be away from a polluted place;
  • clean water must be used to cook and clean kitchen utensils;
  • the origin of produce used to make the food must be clear;
  • vendors must have a waste collection system in place; and
  • vendors can only make use of a specific list of additives.

Which efforts has Viet Nam’s Food Administration undertaken to make street food safer for both vendors and consumers?

The law and guiding circulars on food safety target both vendors and consumers. For street food vendors, VFA organizes training on hygiene and food safety. Consumers are educated through various communications channels to recognize clean and safe street food stalls. Armed with that knowledge, consumers will stay away from any remaining unsafe food stalls and this will create pressure for potentially unsafe vendors to either improve the hygiene of their stall or withdraw from the market.

In addition, we also organize inspections to monitor compliance with the regulations. Compliant vendors will be encouraged, while those not meeting the requirements could be fined or required to stop their activities.

One of many street food stalls in Hanoi, Viet Nam serving rice noodle soup.
WHO Viet Nam/M Dakin

What challenges is Viet Nam facing to make street food safe?

Viet Nam is a lower middle income country, and we still face many challenges. Industrialization and development are taking place at a rapid pace and the environmental pollution that comes with them has a negative impact on hygiene and the ability to provide safe and clean street food. The supply of clean water to street food stalls is a big challenge in that regard.

Another challenge is that some Vietnamese consumers are still poor and accept to buy and consume unsafe food or food that does not meet the food hygiene and safety standards. Moreover, because of a lack of knowledge, or driven by profit, certain vendors also buy and sell unsafe produce.

What are the most common diseases related to street food in Viet Nam?

The most common illnesses related to consuming and producing street food are intestinal/gastrointestinal diseases causing diarrhoea. The key cause is not respecting hygiene standards and the Five Keys to Safer Food. This causes contamination and leads to disease.

How does Viet Nam educate consumers on the five keys to food safety?

We promote the five keys to food safety to consumers by making use of mass media channels such as television or the national radio station, Voice of Viet Nam, but also through associations such as the Farmers Association, Women’s Union and Veterans Association. Those associations distribute the information to their members. To reach consumers in remote areas we also distribute flyers and broadcast audio messages through the village speaker systems.

How does Viet Nam balance traditional cultural practices in preparing food with the need for food safety?

A street food vendor preparing Bánh cuốn, steamed rice rolls.
WHO Viet Nam/M Dakin

Our objective is to make sure the final product is safe for consumption. Traditional practices of preparing food are usually not hygienic. An example is the use of kitchen utensils made out of bamboo wood. We encourage vendors in rural areas to use modern utensils made out of plastic or stainless steel. In addition, we encourage vendors and cooks to use plastic gloves and wear face masks.

Viet Nam participates in WHO’s International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), a global network of national food safety authorities (INFOSAN). Why and how is INFOSAN useful to Viet Nam?

Through the INFOSAN network we receive information on food safety events from other parts of the world very quickly. For example, recently we received information on suspected contaminated formula milk or a while ago on contaminated apples. The network also allows us to easily get in touch with food safety authorities around the world. Through the INFOSAN network Viet Nam will also provide information to other Member States on any food safety events of international concern in Viet Nam.

How is WHO contributing to improved food safety in Viet Nam?

WHO plays a very important role in ensuring food safety. At a global and regional level it provides us with information related to food safety events through INFOSAN and gives advice to manage food safety incidents of international concern. In Viet Nam, WHO supported the development of the food safety law, advocated for a participatory approach to include all stakeholders involved in food safety, strengthened the diagnostic capacities of food safety laboratories, and supported the development of awareness-raising materials for community education and training. We hope WHO will continue to support Viet Nam in future.