Ensuring the quality and safety of street food in Vietnam is easier said than done

Dear Marijn,

My name is Daniel and I’ve been working in Ho Chi Minh City as a journalist for about three years now. I love eating street food and I have even written a few stories about it. My friends from Europe will be visiting soon and I want to introduce them to the city’s street food culture and take them out for a delicious bowl of hu tieu or banh mi. However, they are concerned about hygiene and I don’t want them to spend their holiday in bed with stomachaches. Does the government even have laws on food safety and, if so, are they actually enforced?

I am pretty sure that every foreigner living in Vietnam has had a stomach upset at least once after eating from a street food vendor. Contrary to what you – or your friends – may think, there are actually a lot of rules about food safety in Vietnam, the most important one probably being the Law on Food Safety of 2010. This law and its implementing decrees cover a wide range of food- related topics, including rules on food production, food advertisement and labeling, prevention of food safety incidents, education, communication and the State management of food safety.

More specifically relating to your question, in 2012 the Ministry of Health issued a circular that regulates, among other things, food safety for street food establishments. The term “street food” is defined as food and beverages for instant eating and drinking that are sold on streets or at public locations such as stations, tourist sites, festivals, etc.

The circular states, for example, that the water used to prepare instant food and drinks at street food establishments must be in accordance with technical regulations of the Ministry of Health. Furthermore, street food vendors must be “clean and neat” and, when they are in direct contact with food and drinks, they must use disposable gloves. Also, tables, chairs and cabinets used for the sale of food and beverages must be at least 60 centimeters from the ground. In terms of certification, street food vendors are officially required to have a certificate of training on food safety knowledge, as well as a health certificate issued by the local health authorities.

Hanoi Street Food (OiVietNam_3N)

In order to make sure these rules are actually complied with in practice, the government has issued another decree in 2013 on the sanctions for violating food safety regulations. According to this decree, such sanctions may include: cautions, monetary fines, forcible destruction of food, compensation for the costs of food poisoning, and withdrawal of food safety certificates. To give you some examples, a fine of between VND300,000 and VND500,000 can be imposed for failing to ensure that chopsticks are sufficiently clean, and a fee of between VND500,000 and VND1 million can be imposed for using water that fails to meet the technical regulations on food safety. If unsafe food leads to food poisoning, a street vendor may be fined between VND1 and VND2 million.

Rules and regulations aside, in Vietnam it often boils down to the implementation and enforcement of the law. One of the issues in this regard has been the unclear separation of tasks and powers between the various ministries and government agencies that are involved. Despite recent joint efforts by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the use of inter-disciplinary inspection teams, food safety is unfortunately still a matter of concern to many people in Vietnam. Not just because of the risk of food poisoning, but also because of hidden, more serious issues, such as the use of forbidden pesticides. On the other hand, recent reports by the World Health Organization show that Vietnam is making good progress on food safety. Furthermore, food safety is also on the agenda for the various free trade agreements that Vietnam is currently negotiating.

It is fair to say that Vietnamese law deals extensively and in great detail with food safety, but when it comes to enforcing them it seems that there is still some work to do. But for your friends, please tell them not to worry too much. With you as their guide, I am sure they will be in good hands and I have no doubt that they will enjoy Vietnam’s mouthwatering street food. Bon voyage et bon appétit!

Every month, Marijn Sprokkereef answers legal questions from Oi readers. If you have any legal question you want answered, send them to legal@oivietnam.com.

BIO: After having obtained legal experience in his home country the Netherlands and in Cambodia, Marijn Sprokkereef is currently an associate of Audier & Partners. Audier & Partners is an international law firm with presence in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi), Myanmar and Mongolia, providing advice to foreign investors on a broad range of legal issues.