The Global Travel Council issued a statement saying that Myanmar tourism has already gained 2,668 billion Kyats and could eventually make up 3.5 percent of the nation’s GDP. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism approved that 3.44 million oversea tourists visited Myanmar in the year 2017 and Union of Myanmar Travel Association noted that foreign tourists tend to spend between US $100 and $170 a day. Despite this, those who are related to the field of tourism have voiced that overseas tourists are still doubtful about food hygiene in most of the restaurants and roadside food stalls in Myanmar. As a result, they tend to arrange and contact travel and tour companies and tour guides for guidance.
It is reported that there are warnings in relation to Myanmar’s restaurants and street vendors in guidebooks informing would-be foreign travellers about dos and don’ts regarding food.
Tour guide Ye Aung Zaw told My Magical Myanmar, “All visitors with our company’s tour avoid roadside food because of hygiene.”
Moreover, Daw Sabei Aung, the owner of Nature Dream Tour Company, explained that in the past there have been worries among travellers due to the unhealthy food and they occasionally they even have to return to their homeland owing to diarrhea and sickness.
She said, “I have to take care of my guests as much as I can.”
Although only short-stay and independent travellers tend to use roadside food stalls and local restaurants, foreign tourists on package tours are inclined to stay away from them.
The food in bars and from cheap food outlets in Myanmar
Myanmar’s roadside food stalls and restaurants are more likely to cause stomach upsets and other epidemics because of washing dishes with unclean water, uncovered food, and a lack of proper handling of food, as pointed out by the Food Science and Technology Association-FoSTA Myanmar. It affirmed that there tends to be chemical dyes in fish paste and fermented tea leaves, Aflatoxinin in dried chillies and unhealthy cooking oil is sold.
“It is found that food hygiene is, as you know, very weak in the whole country. It is because there is no good manufacture practice in food,” remarked Dr Win Win Kyi, president of the Food Science and Technology Association.
She reiterated that roadside food stalls are most popular with local diners and therefore we need to educate the owners on hygiene.
Yangon City Development Committee health personnel said that they don’t find items certified by the Food and Drug Administration Myanmar bring sold, weaknesses in covering food and dirty surroundings.
Acting Head Dr Than Than Lwin of YCDC Health Department commented that, “I could not recommend street food for foreigners and would like to advise tour guides to bring their guests to the restaurants which are moderately safe for food.”
The Food and Drug Administration department in Yangon Region assured that when they inspected the food products and packaged food primarily used in roadside food stalls and restaurants, they found the use of Formalin and dyes without permit and the Aflatoxin in dried chilies.
“We test them with a device in our laboratory. We remove those which use extra amounts,” said Deputy Director Dr Min Won of Yangon Region FDA Department.
Yangon City Development Committee health department instructs and inspects the restaurants most popular with foreigners. In addition, the central monitoring board is trying to inspect the roadside food stalls and licensed restaurants once a month. There are twelve hygiene guidelines for restaurants and street vendors. They specify the use of clean water, fresh food and raw materials, having designated places for rubbish and also the personal hygiene of cooks.
Dr Than Than Lwin said, “Due to our large workload, we cannot do as much inspections ourselves as we would like to so for monitoring, we call on the market department and municipal police to assist us. We find their soft spot to follow our rules in their boom time.”
In 2017-2018 fiscal year, YCDC Health Department inspected 8,438 restaurants and 1,570 street hawkers and gave them instructions in how they need to change. Furthermore, when a restaurant is inspected and found not to be following the guidelines, their licenses are temporality suspended and health certificates are banned for the short term, and reissued only if they follow the rules.
With regard to the presently licensed restaurants, Dr Than Than Lwin observed, “We never ever guarantee a license for the whole year. If the restaurant’s standards have deteriorated, we will cancel the license at any time.”
Yangon Region FDA is giving educative talks ten times a month while monitoring twice a month in factories, workshops, markets and department stores in four districts as well as acting on the complaints and abnormalities they hear about.
Dr Min Won explained, “We inspect their raw materials other than food. We instruct them and point out the dirtiness while inspecting the restaurants.”
Yangon Region Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs has already monitored customer complaints district-wise through the Consumer Dispute Settlement Group as well holding the educative campaigns at 1,066 times in the fiscal year 2017-2018.
“Presently we educate consumers about the facts in the law, and business owners about the sale of safe goods with legal trademarks,” said Deputy Director Min Thein from Yangon Region Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
Comparison of food safety with neighbouring countries
In September 2017, Myanmar ranked 80th out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index, placing Singapore fourth, Malaysia 41st, Thailand 55th, Vietnam 64th, Indonesia 69th and the Philippines 79th. In neighboring Thailand, to receive Good Manufacture Practice Certificate, street vendors have to take courses with the Thai FDA, earn the certificate and receive a sales permit. Therefore health experts reviewed that foreign travellers can eat safely in these roadside food shops.
Retired professor Dr Yi Yi Myint from Mandalay Yadanabon University’s Industrial Chemistry Department pointed out to My Magical Myanmar, “In their country, strong action is taken if they sell without this certificate.”
She is a CEC member of the Food Science and Technology Association-FoSTA Myanmar and is now researching Aflatoxin caused by moisture in chilies.
When asking YCDC Health Department whether they should issue sales permit certificate to Yangon street vendors like in Thailand or not, Dr Than Than Lwin replied, “We can’t give 100 percent coverage to street hawkers. We lack human resources. We have other tasks to do. They can work on guidelines and security, but working on food safety every day is not feasible.”
Furthermore, in regard to educating and training street vendors in food safety she said, “We provide a course for street hawkers. The sellers themselves don’t come to the course. They send substitutes and we train them like that.”
Myanmar Restaurants Association-MRA provides training courses about food hygiene to business owners of the 500 restaurant members in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Shan and Kayah State and sends them on excursions to Japan and Thailand to learn about food safety.
“We educate the members in regard to hygiene in kitchens of restaurants. Then we observe how to improve food production and food safety in Thailand in co-operation with Unilever Company,” senior vice-president Daw Tin Mar Myint explained to My Magical Myanmar.
Padonmar Restaurant on Khayaebin Street, Dagon Township is visited by foreign travellers who like that they focus on cooking healthy food and hence, according to Manager Po Po, they serve more than one hundred oversea tourists daily.
Antonio, a Spanish traveller who spoke to My Magical Myanmar while visiting Myanmar drew a conclusion, “Talking of food, it is safe restaurants that the tour companies and tourist guides recommend. We take no risk with roadside food stalls. If something happens, our trip might have to be cancelled.”
Dr Than Than Lwin gave the advice, “There are many restaurants which work well with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and some MRA members understand hygiene fairly and also some took a two-week course in Japan.”
Solutions to the problems
On 2nd February 2018, at the Second Amyothar Hluttaw Seventh Regular Meeting, Hluttaw Representative Kyi Nyunt questioned the Ministry of Health and Sports about the widespread sale of foods forbidden by the FDA, food labeled in English without FDA’s permit, and food using excessive chemical dyes, and the plan to control them.
Regarding that, Union Minister H.E Dr Myint Htwe of the Ministry of Health and Sports replied, “We investigated in the marketplace and removed these items. We went to the production sites, and educated the management and asked them to sign an agreement. If they don’t sign the agreement, we can ban their sales permit and sue them.
Daw Sabei Aung, the owner of Nature Dream Tour Company said that for the citizens to have a high standard of health, the FDA and health institutions must provide courses to the roadside food stalls and issue certified sales passes. If they do, the residents can eat more easily and then foreign travellers will be more likely to trust the food standards here.
“There is still weakness in food hygiene in our developing country. That’s why the foreigners are afraid to try the food. Only when FDA takes action, locals trust the food hygiene, and so do foreigners. Thus the restaurant’s income will increase and it will become more neat and tidy,” she said.
German-language tour guide Htet Htet Khine Wah told My Magical Myanmar that she had to warn her guests about the food like this;
“It is the guide’s duty to avoid causing the guest upset. I recommend hygienic and healthy restaurants for them. They shouldn’t have to feel sick in the hotel rooms as they visit our country at their expense.”