Globalization has sparked an increase in consumer demand for a wider variety of foods, resulting in a longer, if not more complex, global food chain as well as the industrialization of agricultural systems in order to meet this rising demand. This also means that more actors and players are concerned in the big task of ensuring that food remains healthy and safe -- from point of production all the way to consumption.
According to the World Health Organization, one in 10 people in the world (or an estimated 600 million) fall ill from eating contaminated food and about 420,000 die every year. Such incidents of food contamination are especially common in places where informal food production and marketing systems are prevalent like Southeast Asia1.
In Cambodia, the Ministry of Health reported 91 foodborne disease outbreaks in the last three years, resulting to more than 3,600 reported cases of foodborne illnesses and over 3,500 hospitalizations. The causes are easy to spot: poor hygiene practices during food preparation, cross-contamination, use of unsafe water or raw materials, and more recently, methanol poisoning.
Food contamination is an issue that requires a two-fold solution, and the critical tasks lie on both food handlers and health authorities. On the former the challenge is compliance, and on the latter the design of laws and regulations on food safety and making sure that these are properly implemented and followed.
Acknowledging that information and awareness are essential foundations in the promotion of food safety consciousness, the Food Safety Bureau (FSB) of the Department of Drug and Food in Cambodia has beefed up their training programs on Good Hygiene Practices (GHP) to target more food service establishments. These GHP trainings are the result of FSB staff members’ participation in Mekong Institute-sponsored training courses under its PROSAFE (Promoting Safe Food for Everyone) Project. Making use of lessons learned from the MI training programs, FSB officers educate food handlers working in restaurants and canteens on the importance of food safety principles and the application of hygienic practices like hand washing during food preparation.
“Our role is to ensure that food handlers follow the required rules and regulations for proper hygiene and sanitation,” explains Ph. Aing Hok Srun, Director of the FSB. According to him, food outbreak cases have also significantly dropped compared to previous years as more effort is put into raising public awareness and providing more training to food handlers. The training received by FSB staff members have improved confidence at the same time knowledge on food safety, which, he explains, has also eased the work of the Bureau.
Back to back with the GHP trainings, the FSB is also steadfast in its promotion of its certification scheme to upgrade food safety standards of the country’s restaurant and catering industry. As of December 2018, over 2,000 restaurants and catering establishments have already received hygiene certifications for basic compliance to GHP and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards. A step further from this basic hygiene certification is the GHP Logo Certificate with three grade levels: Grade A (Excellent) for enterprises with 80 percent or more compliance to the food safety criteria; Grade B (Good) for those with 70 percent or more compliance; and Grade C (Quality) for 60 percent or more compliance. The food safety criteria, listed as a 72-point checklist, focuses on standards in food handling areas, food storage, control of ingredients and supplier approval, among others. To date, over 500 of the 2,000 restaurants with basic hygiene certificates have been awarded their GHP Logo Certifications. A major boost to food businesses, the certification is akin to a promotional ticket since establishments awarded this ‘mark’ are featured in national tourist guidebooks as certified safe places to eat.
Ms. Pich Rathmony, Operations Manager of One More Restaurant that has earned grade A logo certificate from DFF in 2017 and again in 2019, shares proudly that the certification has greatly helped build trust with customers, enhancing their business image and eventually, driving up sales. “The certification promotes the image of our business as a safe place to eat, and demonstrates our commitment to providing safe food to our consumers especially when serving foreign customers,” she adds. She herself just attended a PROSAFE course at MI in May this year, and is looking forward to using the knowledge she gained from the training in order to maintain their restaurant’s certification and ensure its successful renewal.
Knowing whether our food is safe for eating does require more than one expert’s eye to see, and the complexity of the production chain makes determining it even harder. But this is where agencies like Cambodia’s FSB comes in. Complementing awareness raising with quality assurance measures such as a GHP certification, they make it so much easier for the eating public to spot the marks of safe food.