Opinion: New Food Safety Laws Could Kill Vietnam’s Street Food Culture

Banh Mi 30

New food safety laws require all vendors to wear gloves. Photo by Julia Solervicens.

Street food vendor’s difficult lives are about to get even harder. As of October 20th 2018, fines for all food outlets, including street food vendors, for food safety violations have dramatically increased, according to Dan Tri International.

The Vietnamese government’s decision to replace a 2013 resolution with a new one increases fines for not using gloves during food preparation from VND300,000-500,000 to VND500,000 to VND1 million and drastically raises the penalty for lacking food safety certificates from VND300,000 to VND25 million to VND20 million to VND40 million.

There are other increases on fines for use of banned antibiotics and chemicals and for lacking utensil and packing safety certificates, hammering home the overall message that shortcuts in food safety and hygiene will no longer be tolerated. Ostensibly, the hefty fines are part of efforts to assuage public concerns over food poisoning, which is still a major issue in Vietnam, which recorded 11 food poisoning deaths in the first six months of 2018.

food safety 1

Delicious, but dangerous?

A noble goal no doubt, but it is fair to wonder how effective plans to fine people who sell food for less than two dollars more than $1,700 if they don’t have paperwork. Most street food vendors don’t have proper seating, never mind food safety certificates!

That being said, it’s hard to deny that fines for food safety violations in Vietnam need to increase, as restaurants and food industry firms (both large and small) have faced minimal punishment for serving dangerous food. According to Viet Nam News, in the first half of 2018 more than 13,000 businesses in the country were fined for food safety violations, yet these fines averaged a paltry $118 per business. For a street food vendor, that’s a lot of money. For a catering company with huge industrial zone canteen contracts, it’s not much of a deterrent considering how much money such a firm makes.

So yes, higher fines are needed to discourage large companies from cutting the sort of corners that cause the mass food poisoning cases that aren’t uncommon in Vietnam. But what good will fining a street food vendor hundreds of dollars do? One has to hope that there are plans to ease these changes in and help street food vendors apply for the food safety certificates in particular, as I have no doubt if these regulations are rolled out and applied overnight that hundreds of vendors will have to shut up shop.

food safety 2

The push for the use of gloves during food preparation is noteworthy as well. Top chefs in the West have long railed against attempts to force them to glove up, complaining they only serve to make their jobs more difficult. The late Anthony Bourdain was one such chef, stating “Gloves? You’ll find a box of surgical gloves—in my kitchen we call them ‘anal-research gloves’—over every station on the line, for the benefit of the health inspectors, but does anyone actually use them? Yes, a cook will slip a pair on every now and then, especially when he’s handling something with a lingering odour, like salmon. But during the hours of service gloves are clumsy and dangerous. When you’re using your hands constantly, latex will make you drop things, which is the last thing you want to do.”

While of course comparing Anthony Bourdain’s kitchen to a street-side noodle vendor is hardly apples to apples, some of his points carry over. If vendors are led to believe that wearing gloves will solve all their kitchen hygiene inspection problems, there will be a temptation to use them only when being watched by the inspectors. Worse still, propagating the notion that wearing gloves is a cure-all for street food vendors could actually lead to less hygienic food.

food safety 3

Can gloves really save us all?

When California tried to mandate the wearing of gloves in kitchens and bars back in 2014, the industry revolted and swiftly got the bill struck down. San Francisco-based food industry businessman Iso Rabins led the charge against the gloves, vehemently exclaiming “This law would have made people less safe because of a false sense of security. You’re less aware of your hands being dirty and more likely to engage in risky behaviour. You touch chicken, touch the trash, touch something else.”

Perhaps instead of slapping a band aid on Vietnam’s food hygiene problems with illogical regulations and hefty fines that could destroy businesses that are a huge draw for tourists visiting the country, perhaps Vietnam should consider educating street food vendors on how to make their food cleaner, and why they should do it.

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Late night Ban Cuon. © HOT TABLE. Photography by Mi Nguyen.

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