Traditional wet markets play an important role in Vietnam’s food systems, particularly in urban areas. Urban households spend 77-99% of their food expenditure in traditional wet markets. Yet, food safety and traceability issues are rampant, often due to weak governance and law enforcement. Addressing these issues is key to ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food for urban consumers. In 2022, Rikolto started working with the Ha Nam Department of Agro-Forestry and Fisheries Quality Assurance (DAFIQA) to promote collaboration between producers, distributors, consumers and related government agencies to tackle food safety and traceability challenges in Bau traditional market in Vietnam.
At Rikolto, we embrace a sustainable food systems approach as overarching programmatic framework. In our Sustainable Food Systems article series, we take a closer look at what this means to Rikolto. In the first article, our colleague Charlotte Flechet unveils the five entry points we consider part of our approach. Multi-stakeholder and territorial coordination is one of the five entry points. Our work at the Bau wet market is an example of this systems thinking in action.
The Bau traditional wet market is located at the centre of the city of Phủ Lý, in Hà Nam province, Vietnam. It is the biggest market in the province, gathering about 500 vendors. Every day, the market provides a variety of fresh food directly to residents, restaurants, hotels and shops, as well as vendors trading in other smaller wet markets in the city. However, Bau market, just like other traditional markets, has to deal with food safety and traceability challenges, mainly due to a lack of coordination among the relevant government agencies and food supply chain actors, including producers, vendors and consumers.
Not one, but three government agencies are in charge of managing food safety and traceability at the Bau market: the Department of Agro-Forestry-Fisheries Quality Assurance (DAFIQA), the Department of Industry and Trade (DoIT), and the Department of Health (DOH), together with the Provincial People’s Committee and the Market Management Board. There is no clear roadmap for food safety management, and the coordination between these stakeholders is inconsistent and loose: the interdisciplinary product safety inspection, for example, is only randomly executed. Daily product safety inspections are the responsibility of the Market Management Board. Yet, most Board members lack the relevant background and knowledge of the right tools for food quality inspection. Inspections are mostly sensory or based on the review of documents, making it unlikely to detect chemical residues and sources of non-communicable diseases. Government agencies take periodical sample tests when there are any signs of violations and cases related to food poisoning. Even though there is a Vietnamese Food Safety Law, it is weakly implemented because of a lack of detailed guidance and overlapping with other legislation.
Not all challenges are linked to the way the Bau traditional market is managed. Producers, vendors and customers also have limited awareness of the importance of food safety and traceability. Farmers often lack knowledge and skills on sustainable production: they overuse chemical fertilisers and pesticides, often thinking merely about short-term benefits in terms of production. Vendors continue to sell unlabelled or untraceable products from their close network of suppliers, instead of switching to new sources with better quality. They rarely do bookkeeping in their daily business, making it hard to trace the origin of products. Some even do not have facilities that meet the conditions for food hygiene and safety. Meanwhile, because of the unclear distinction between safe and unsafe food and consumer habits of looking for the lowest-price options, consumers are reluctant to pay a higher price for safe and traceable products.
In 2022, Rikolto started collaborating with the Hà Nam DAFIQA to improve food safety and traceability at traditional wet markets, as a way of ensuring the access to safe, healthy and nutritious food for about 800,000 people in Hà Nam province. We focus on three interconnected pillars: improving food governance, enhancing the vegetable supply chain and better knowledge and awareness of consumers towards healthy diets.
Food safety and traceability management in traditional wet markets is a crucial issue that requires active participation, commitment and collaboration among all stakeholders. That is why, to improve food governance, Rikolto facilitated a participatory food systems analysis.
Rikolto plays a role as a bridge-builder and facilitator to promote the active engagement and coordination between functional government agencies and food chain actors. We act as a catalyst to mutual understanding, trustworthiness and collaboration. Our facilitation ensures that all voices are heard, all challenges are addressed and all information is transparently accessible through various channels such as regular meetings with representatives from relevant stakeholders, emails, phone calls and Zalo groups.
The first step was a participatory food system analysis, which included identifying common issues and key actors. Next, to promote the collaboration between all key actors, a multi-stakeholder platform at provincial level was set up towards the end of 2022: the Food Safety Coordination Board (FSCB) of Hà Nam.
The FSCB undertakes two main tasks, including managing product quality and enabling the environment of connecting and building capacities for food chain actors, especially producers and vendors, related to food safety and traceability, as well as improving consumers’ awareness and behaviour about safe and traceable products.
The process of setting up the FSCB also included the joint development of its vision, mission, road maps and action plans with detailed tasks for each members.
The FSCB has 11 members and represents all key actors of the food supply chain, including DAFIQA, DoIT, DOH, the Bau Market Management Board, food entrepreneurs and farmer organisations.
“The FSCB plays an important role in addressing the food safety and traceability situation of the traditional wet markets. It is also synchronised with our department’s duties and strategic plans to develop a sustainable food system.” Truong Quoc Hung, Head of Hà Nam DAFIQA.
The creation of the FSCB is the starting point for a series of interventions in the following years related to strengthening the food safety governance and traceability at the Bau market, at other locations in the province and beyond.
“The food safety and traceability management at the Bau traditional wet market is a case study, taking the FSCB as a leverage point for the multi-stakeholder collaboration. Given their roles, through the coordination plan, all key actors of the food system will get involved and committed to tackling the food issues.” Dam Trong Tuan, Good Food for Cities programme, Rikolto in Vietnam.
Throughout the process, Rikolto collects track records. They are required to inform updates and adjust the plans during the process. We also collect evidence for impact and lessons learnt, share best practices through workshops and meetings and advocate for the replication of the initiative. The approach, along with evidence-based lessons, has already been shared with partners and relevant agencies such as DAFIQA, DoIT, DOH, Agricultural Extension Centre (AEC), Department of Plantation and Plant Protection (DPP) in Vinh Phuc, Tuyen Quang and Hanoi provinces. Until now, Tuyen Quang and Vinh Phuc provinces have established their own FSCBs to promote the sustainability of supply food chains and food environments at wet markets in their provinces. In the next stage, we will summarise the lessons learnt from the traditional wet markets and further consolidate the multi-stakeholder approach as the basis for the replication.
In the coming years, we will also support the FSCB in reviewing legal documents to develop practical guidelines on food safety and hygiene applied to vegetable products sold at wet markets, and use them as a basis for training and guiding vendors and Market Management Board members.
The FSCB will promote short vegetable chains meeting the food safety and traceability criteria from farmer organisations with vendors, focusing on regenerative agriculture principles and a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). The FSCB will communicate to raise awareness among consumers about healthy diet practices. Regular meetings between FSCB members and multi-stakeholder dialogues are platforms on which to develop lessons learnt and policy recommendations related to traditional wet markets.
Between 2018 and 2021, we collaborated with Wageningen University and Research and CIAT to study and increase fruit and vegetable intake among low-income populations. Safe and organic products are not commonly traded in Hanoi’s urban and peri-urban districts, and hence also not commonly consumed. In this project, we addressed the accessibility, affordability and acceptability of fruit and vegetables, by working with vendors and consumers to identify innovations that aim at boosting the intake of fruit and vegetables. At the vendor level, this included testing the effects of displaying nutritional content and advice for fruit and vegetables, and using loyalty and coupon card that encouraged the consumption of fruit and vegetables. On the consumer side, we focused on promotional campaigns. Lessons we have learnt during this process laid the foundations for our work at Bau market, and for others in the future:
Based on the experience of this project, we will design a roadmap for changing customer behaviour regarding safe foods at the wet markets, through communication campaigns, safe and traceable product promotion materials, signboards, mass media and public speakers.
The road to making sure that healthy, safe and nutritious food is available and affordable to all consumers is long and winding. Engaging all food chain actors and stakeholders in the process of development of sustainable supply chains and inclusive environments at traditional wet markets is crucial. We adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to make this happen.