Interview

Getting Serious About Food Safety in Myanmar

By San Yamin Aung 7 August 2019

KHON KAEN, Thailand—Every year, unsafe food and water kill more people worldwide than HIV, AIDS, malaria and measles combined, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Of the approximately 600 million people who fall ill after eating contaminated food, 420,000 die.

Food safety—the practices occurring along the entire food chain to ensure food does not harm consumers, from production and processing to distribution and consumption—has become a challenging issue not just to public health but also to nutrition security, the economy, trade, tourism and sustainable development.

Myanmar has a poor track record of preventing foodborne illnesses, plagued by low public awareness and weak adoption of food safety practices among producers, processors, distributors and consumers, as well a lack of cooperation among government agencies involved in food safety and some outdated food security regulations still under revision.

The Irrawaddy recently sat down with Dwight Jason Ronan, project coordinator for the Mekong Institute’s PROSAFE (Promoting Safe Food for Everyone) Project at their office in Khon Kaen, in northeast Thailand. Ronan, who is also the Myanmar country coordinator for PROSAFE, leads food safety courses and other services that support food safety for local governments and private sector actors in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

In this interview, Ronan spoke about the current state of food safety in Myanmar as compared to other Mekong-region countries and the challenges it must address in improving domestic food safety.

Dwight Jason Ronan, project coordinator for the Mekong Institute’s PROSAFE (Promoting Safe Food for Everyone) Project at a recent media training program on food safety in Thailand. / Mekong Institute)

As the country coordinator, you have worked closely with government ministries and organizations working on food safety in Myanmar over the past few years. How do you see the food safety situation in Myanmar?

I think Myanmar’s situation is similar to other countries in the region. An important aspect is, at the moment, Myanmar is starting to open up its country to further trade with other countries, as well as [welcome an] influx of tourists going to Myanmar. Food safety is beginning to be a priority of the Myanmar government. We have seen the commitment of the Myanmar government to addressing the different issues in food safety.

However, I think—similar to other countries—the problem at the moment in Myanmar is that we still need to improve inter-ministerial cooperation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, the Ministry of Health and Sports and the Ministry of Commerce. There’s still need for stronger collaboration among these three key ministries. That’s from the public sector.

In terms of the private sector, I think the challenge that you have in Myanmar is that there are still a lot of small- and medium-sized enterprises and businesses in the country. Their knowledge and skills still need to be improved in terms of adopting food safety practices that are accepted nationally and even regionally so that they can open more opportunities for export and [other] business opportunities.

What is the key issue you think Myanmar needs to address regarding food safety?

Well, it’s difficult to identify just one, but I guess an important issue that needs to be addressed is raising awareness of the value of food safety. When we say raising awareness, that involves both public and private [actors] and also consumers: the Myanmar people in general. I think there is a need to communicate about food safety [and make] people aware of food safety. They have to think every time they buy a good from the market or from the mall, every time they look at the product and decide which to buy … and how [to] prepare food safely.

Compared with other Mekong region countries, what do you think of Myanmar’s status in terms of food safety?

I think it is quite similar with other Mekong countries. Of course, Thailand and China are well advanced already in food safety, but I think Myanmar has similar challenges to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I think the only concern that should be highlighted in Myanmar at the moment is the National Food Law, which is under revision. I think it should be the priority of the government at the moment to make sure the law—[and] implementing the rules and procedures under the National Food Law—is well disseminated to all. There should be stronger ministerial cooperation in terms of implementing these rules.

As I explained to you, I think the three key ministries—they all work on food safety but they still lack cooperation. Because, for example, in market surveillance we have heard the stories in Yangon, Naypyitaw or other major cities in Myanmar that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will do its own surveillance, the Ministry of Commerce will do its own surveillance and also different NGOs and civil society groups will do their own market surveillance. So the vendors, they are bit confused about who should really do it and what regulations they should follow.

At the moment, I would say the implementation of food safety is still fragmented. There are still risks of duplicating efforts because of weak inter-ministerial cooperation.

Street food is seen in downtown Yangon. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

You mentioned that China and Thailand are well-advanced in food safety. The two are also primary food exporters to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. However, there have been many food safety concerns raised regarding those products—especially from China. What would you say about that?

At the moment, I think it is a misconception to say that products from China are not safe. I think that is a common myth we usually think of. China is well advanced in terms of how they monitor food safety in their practices and their products. I think, because the government is very strict, there is more news coming out of China of violations by private companies, etc.

What Myanmar really can do in terms of getting exports from Thailand and China is to really look into the policies that China and Thailand are implementing at the moment on food safety and see how Myanmar can merge or respond to these policies.

As I mentioned, Myanmar just opened up recently and there is a big volume of products coming in and coming out of the country. This is very good, but, at the same time, Myanmar should prepare itself by readying enabling policies or institutional mechanisms to support the volume of products coming in and out of the country.

Have you seen any improvements in food safety in recent years in Myanmar?

Yes. We’ve seen a lot of advances in food safety in the country. You have a very strong civil society—like the work of the Food Science and Technology Association and the Myanmar Consumer Union. They are very active. In most of the food safety-related events in the country, they are both well represented. That is actually a good sign for Myanmar because, aside from the strong commitment of the government, we also need the commitment of the civil society sector.

There are also a lot of advances in terms of technology that are being adopted in Myanmar. As I mentioned, Myanmar opened up already so there is a lot of foreign investment to really improve food safety facilities and practices in the country.

Is there anything in Myanmar that shocked or surprised you in terms of food safety?

When I first stayed in Myanmar, a long time ago, I think one thing I saw that not really shocked me but is very different from where I grew up is, I think you usually blanch your vegetables or fruits. You put them in hot water and you served them with Ngapi (fish paste). Thinking about it now, there are a lot of possible points of contamination in terms of blanching vegetables or fruits, because we don’t know if the water is clean or even how the Ngapi was prepared.

Also … one thing that really shocked me, I guess, is the amount of oil that you use in the food. I understand in rural communities they use oil to prevent the spoilage of food because they don’t have refrigeration or freezers. The locals told me they use a lot of oil to maintain the cleanliness of the food and to prevent insects from coming in. Thinking about it [now], there are a lot of health implications. There are a lot of food safety concerns in terms of the overuse of oil and the type of oil they use.

Street food is seen in downtown Yangon. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

Any message for the Myanmar government?

The theme of the first World Food Safety Day this year [June 7], celebrated by the FAO and the WHO (World Health Organization), [was that] food safety is everyone’s business. Promoting food safety is not just the role of the government. The private sector and consumers really do have important roles [to play] in terms of creating the demand for safe food. If they are more aware of food safety and if they are more familiar with the value of consuming safe food, they will demand food safety. This market demand for food safety can push private sectors to adopt new practices. This can also push the government to really look into what types of policies, legislation and programs we really need to make sure that everyone in the country is consuming safe food.

The public sector [and] the government sector should also [undertake] awareness-raising initiatives so that people are more aware that in Myanmar we have GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), we have national standards promoting safe practices on the farm or in the processing area.

At the same time, in the private sector, it is important for [the government] to talk about food safety by using logos or by using appropriate labeling and packaging materials. For example, for food handlers, it is also important for them to promote how they practice food safety; that will help their businesses as well.

We need the commitment of all the relevant stakeholders and sectors to really promote food safety in the country.

I am also curious to know—as a food safety expert, how do you choose your food?

Actually, I am not really a food safety expert, but we’ve been working on food safety for quite [a few] years. Now, I would say that I am more knowledgeable in terms of how I choose my food. I think one example is that I am more aware of the value of certified products—for example, GAP-, HACCP- (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) or GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices)-certified product. For me, every time I buy a product in a local market or a super market, I usually look at the label and the packaging to see whether the product is certified.

Also, as an everyday consumer of food as well, I am more aware of how food should be prepared. If I am visiting another country or a restaurant or hotel, I am more aware of what considerations [have been taken] to make sure that the food that I eat is safe. Also, as someone who has been working in food safety, I talk about it more with friends [and] family so that other people are also more aware and more knowledge about food safety. So, I think it is how I apply food safety in my daily life.

You may also like these stories:

Loading