Among all of the industries affected by the pandemic, perhaps the food industry is one of the least surprising. Heavily interconnected with the tourism industry – particularly in hotspots such as Siem Reap and the capital – falling footfall and partial lockdowns have been biting.
Fittingly then, the Food Safety Forum held yesterday was under the theme “Challenges and Opportunities of Food Service Industry amid COVID-19”, an event funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and the Mekong Institute.
Speaking at the event, President of the Cambodian Restaurant Association Arnaud Darc said the pandemic has not only posed significant new challenges, particularly financial, but has flagged existing issues within the industry that will require renewed efforts in the new normal.
“Financially, the pandemic has put a huge burden on the food industry. Business is down by 90 percent in Siem Reap and 50 percent in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. This has led to some either suspending their operations, closing or selling their assets to try and keep open,” he said.
“This is where we have asked the government for support to offer loans to business as well as tax exemptions on rent and staff. Our priority is to keep food services open because they account for around 13 percent of GDP and will be key to servicing post-pandemic tourism and the national recovery,” he said.
However, he said there are also the issues that the food industry faced before the pandemic which have been exacerbated by COVID-19, because of its impact on changing consumer demands and requirements of the food industry.
“Cambodia still faces issues in the safeguarding of workers and consumers. Food industry business must adhere to high quality, best practice standards because maintaining food security has become unconditional when it comes to food trade and customer demand amid the pandemic,” he said.
He says now, more than ever, the food put on the market has to be of good quality and safe for consumption, as well as not being a source of disease and infection.
Calls for better food practice are pre-pandemic, with the Ministry of Health reporting foodborne disease outbreaks occurring 91 times between 2015 and 2018, resulting in some 3,615 illnesses, 3,521 hospitalisations and 54 deaths.
In its findings, it said a large proportion of foodborne disease incidents are caused by food improperly prepared or mishandled and health authorities must implement stricter laws and regulations, especially regarding food handling, hygiene and use of unsafe water.
Food specialist Ratna Devi Nadarajan from the Agricultural Development and Commercialisation Department at the Mekong Institute, said, food-borne illness present a significant risk to personal and public health as well as the economy.
“Foodborne illness treatment costs the global economy $15 billion annually and results in a $95 billion productivity loss,” she said.
“Every year in South East Asia, 150 million fall ill from food-borne diseases of which 60 million are children,” she said.
Nadarajan said the primary source of these comes from poor handling and transport of food, poor personal hygiene and poor waste management.
She said particularly in the informal sector, such as street food and local markets, awareness around food safety is low, which has a negative impact on the supply chain.
“Street food vendors are often part-timers, supplementing incomes and are often highly mobile, so they are a hard target to regulate, train and certify,” she said.
“They are also those likely most affected by the pandemic. This means they are less likely to use PPE [personal protection equipment], carry out temperature checks or have appropriate food storage facilities for instance, putting themselves and others at risk,” she added.
To help reduce foodborne disease in Cambodia, the drug and food department at the Ministry of Health said they have introduced a certification process for hygiene as well as a grading system for restaurants that can be gained after inspection by authorities.
Director of the department of drugs and food at the Ministry of Health Heng Bunkiet said: “We have implemented a number of initiatives to improve food safety and combat foodborne illness. Since creating our hygiene certificate process, we have inspected and awarded hygiene certificates to some 2,892 restaurants and canteens, as well as graded more than 400 as part of the GHP [goods hygiene practice} certificate programme. We also have introduced a food safety bureau and inter-ministerial prakas, as well as a number of training, inspection and education initiatives,” he added.
Darc said: “It is especially hard to talk about investment when revenue and expendable income are low, but we must ensure we have a better level of safety readiness in the circumstances and the industry must adapt to new service requirements of the customer,” he said.