In some countries, hawker food is nutritious, but there is much room for improvement in areas like cleanliness and regulation, writes LOH FOON FONG.
In the next 10-15 years, 50% of the world’s population will live in urban areas and depend on street food, or hawker fare, as their main source of meals.
Dr S. Sothi Rachagan, regional director of Consumers International (CI) Asia Pacific Office said during the Safety of Street Vended Food seminar, a side event of FAO/WHO Regional Conference for Food Safety for Asia and the Pacific held recently in Kuala Lumpur, that in many Asian countries, street food is still unrecognised and unregulated, and there is a need for legal response to increase the status of the people handling such food.
However, in Malaysia and Singapore, hawker fare has become hygienic and wholesome as a result of support from the government. In these countries, vendors are housed in larger complexes with water supply and garbage disposal facilities, he said.
Although lacking recognition, the street food business provides employment opportunities in urban areas, particularly for people who are not able to find jobs in the formal sector.
“During the economic crisis, those who were unemployed found jobs in street food production. This saved a lot of them from starving,” said Sothi.
As the street food business requires low investment and skill, this sector offers livelihood for the urban poor. In Calcutta, India, one out of 60 people is involved in the street food-vending business. A large number of people who have migrated from villages to cities usually end up making a living as street food vendors.
From recent CI-initiated surveys on the Safety of Street Food Vended Foods, most street food vendors in Vietnam and the Philippines were women who work to supplement their family income. The street food trade is also vital in providing income to many small farmers who supply food vendors with local produce, said Sothi.
Vendors of street food provide affordable meals for all classes of society and their services are particularly essential to lower and middle-income households and individuals. It is the least expensive source of a nutritionally-balanced meal away from home.
Since vendors usually operate on the roadside and sometimes near open drains with no supply of clean water or place to dispose of garbage, people tend to think that street food is dirty and unsafe.
“However, studies showed that street food is not worse off than food served in restaurants in the same locality. “ said Sothi.
Due to the lack of legal status, street food vendors are also vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. Many vendors surveyed in the Philippines, Vietnam and India reported that they pay “rent” for their shops. Often, the police collect the “rent”. Without proper government regulation, unauthorised collectors also subject street food vendors to unofficial “taxation”, said Sothi.
A. Kavitha from Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG) in her paper Safety of Street Vended Food in India noted that since street food vendors in India have to pay police to continue operating their business, vendors strongly suggest that registration and not licensing be implemented since favouritism may interfere with who gets the licence and who does not.
In a Q&A session, a member of the audience pointed out that not only the hygiene level needs to be looked into but the level of pesticides, additives and colouring must be controlled to ensure that food is safe for consumption. Food producers too should be made responsible for the production of food, he said.
Associate professor Datin Dr Toh Poh See, who specialises in Public Health/Food Safety in Universiti Teknologi Mara, commented that the scenario painted by FAO/WHO on street food cannot be generalised for all developing countries. In their report, it is said that most street food vendors are women and most are uneducated and take on the job on a part-time basis. However, she said that is not true in Malaysia.
“Most of the hawkers in Malaysia are men and 40% of them are educated and they take home income that is equal to a professional. It’s a lucrative job especially in the Klang Valley. About 40% of hawkers in the Klang Valley earn more than RM3,500 a month,” she said.
In an interview, Toh said that in Malaysia, the lack of enforcement, training among trainers and knowledge among hawkers are areas that still need to be improved.
Hawkers for instance, wash their hands in the sink they use to wash their plates and foodstuff and that can cause cross contamination, she said.
“They should also be made aware that washing hands with soap does not kill germs but disinfecting the hands does. There are no disinfecting agents being used,” she said.
Toh said there should be a competition and reward system to enhance the cleanliness and hygiene culture while courses on food safety should be made mandatory as well as more illustrative.
Consumers too should be educated and not go to places that are dirty otherwise the hygiene level of hawkers will not improve, she added.
Toh said that research on street food is lacking though two-thirds of the world population consume street food.
Dr Abdul Rahim Mohamad, director of the Food Quality Control Division at the Health Ministry, said the Food Hygiene Regulation under the Food Act 1983 should be ready by year-end and will give the Health Ministry powers to act against dirty eateries.
With the introduction of the regulation, it will strengthen the by-laws that the local authorities already have in place, he said. Those states that did not have comprehensive laws can adopt the regulation, and local authorities are also empowered by the Health Ministry to act on their behalf, he said.
The regulation will cover personal hygiene, premise requirements and garbage disposal systems.
Abdul Rahim pointed out that it’s not enough just to wear gloves. Hawkers have to know what to do after wearing them. “The wearing of gloves does not mean that it is safe. What is required is good handling practice. They should not for instance, scratch their face with their gloves. When kneading bread, their watches should be removed,” he said.
Workers should put on clean aprons every day, he added.
Sothi said the state government should allocate food centres when planning new developments.
“For current housing areas that do not have food centres, they can look into multiple land use such as opening the playground for food business during certain times of the day. If it is a market place, it can be turned into a food area at night. We need to think of the design of these things,” he said.
He added that the design of vehicles suitable for bringing food such as cendol and soya bean to residential areas have helped hawkers.
Hawkers have made numerous sacrifices, one of which is their long working hours, and their contribution to society should be acknowledged and they should be given as much opportunity and support as possible to operate properly, said Sothi.
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