Globally, one in 10 people fall sick every year from eating contaminated food, with Africa and Southeast Asia having the highest incidence and highest death rates, including in children under the age of five.
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Although no official study on the impact of consuming unsafe food in Cambodia exists, the public has become increasingly concerned about the food they eat. Incidents of people getting ill after eating unsafe food are frequently posted and shared on social media.
In 2016 alone there were about 1,000 reported cases of food poisoning throughout the country.
In the same year, the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) tested vegetables and spices imported into Switzerland from Asia and found that 53 percent of imported vegetables from Vietnam and Cambodia had unacceptable levels of pesticides or contained traces of banned weed killers.
Dealing with unsafe food is a real challenge for Cambodia. The long-awaited law on food safety has yet to be passed. Now the country relies on inter-ministerial prakas to regulate its food and beverage industry, the enforcement of which has been lacking.
Speaking at Enrich Talk – a monthly multi-stakeholder policy dialogue platform for sustainable development discussion – Dr Aing Hoksrun, chief of the Food Bureau at the Ministry of Health’s Department of Drugs and Food and head of the inter-ministerial technical working group on food safety, said the government is aware of the issue and has been working hard to address the problem.
“We are now developing a labelling system for vegetables and will continue to raise public awareness on the problems,” he told the audience.
Speaking at the same event, Chan Sophal, the director of the Center for Policy Studies, said Cambodia imports between 200 and 400 tons of vegetable annually from Vietnam and it is not clear how the quality of these vegetables is controlled.
“It’s difficult to reduce dependence on vegetable imports because we cannot guarantee sufficient domestic production to meet demand. Cambodian farmers lack incentives to grow organic vegetables as it requires more time, more energy and more cost,” he added.
Thlang Sovann Pisey, executive director of Khmer Organic Cooperative, told the forum her company had faced many challenges in promoting organic products due to low consumer awareness.
“The market for organic products is still very small. It’s hard for consumers to know which products are safe and which are harmful to their health so they still choose to buy cheaper products despite the health risks,” she explained.
Unsafe food poses national health threats, endangering everyone. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with underlying illnesses are particularly vulnerable.
Foodborne pathogens can cause severe diarrhea or debilitating infections including meningitis. Food with chemical contamination can lead to acute poisoning or long-term diseases, such as cancer and long-lasting disability and even death.
Although it’s hard to estimate the cost of unsafe food, it is generally agreed that the burden of foodborne diseases to public health and welfare and to the economy is substantial.
In Ghana, for example, a country with a similar GDP per capita and public expenditure on health to that of Cambodia, unsafe food costs the country $69 million annually.
Ensuring safe food for all the people is possible but it requires strong support and engagement from all relevant stakeholders. Policy makers can build and maintain adequate food systems and infrastructures to respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain.
Multi-sectorial collaboration is needed for better monitoring and enforcement of food safety standards and guidelines.
NGOs and the academic community can help raise consumers and producer’s awareness on the importance of food safety. Research institutions can provide scientific evidence and generate innovative approaches to deal with the problems.
Consumers can be more vigilant and make informed choices on the food they buy and eat. When there is less demand, the supply of unsafe food in the market will decrease.