Globally, one out of 10 people fall sick every year from eating contaminated food, with the African and Southeast Asian regions having the highest incidence and highest death rates, including among children under the age of five years.
Although there is no study on the impact of consuming unsafe food in Cambodia, the public has become increasingly concerned about the food they eat.
Incidents of people getting ill after eating unsafe food have frequently been 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 have unacceptable levels of pesticides or contained traces of banned weed killers.
Dealing with the 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 the Enrich Talk on food safety and consumer protection recently, Dr Aing Hoksrun, the chief of the food bureau at the department of drugs and food, Ministry of Health, 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 in the same event, Chan Sophal from 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, the Executive Director of Khmer Organic Cooperative, told the forum her company has 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 an underlying illness 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 will similar GDP per capita and government 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 the engagement of all relevant stakeholders. Policy makers can build and maintain adequate food systems and infrastructure to respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain.
Multi-sectoral collaboration is needed for better monitoring and enforcement of the food safety standard and guidelines.
NGOs and academics can help to raise consumer and producer awareness on the importance of food safety. Research institutions can provide scientific evidence and generate an innovative approach to deal with the problems.
Consumers can be more vigilant and make an informed choice of the food they buy and eat. When there is less demand, the supply of unsafe food in the market will be reduced.
Pheakdey Heng is the founder and Chairman of the Enrich Institute.