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Concern for food safety rises as ‘supermarketisation’ overtakes traditional wet markets in Asia.
Food safety and better nutrition are real and serious challenges facing billions of people in low- and middle-income countries worldwide in urban and rural settings.
Addressing both these issues are critical to achieve our Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to ending hunger. But they compete for attention, priority and resources from governments and consumers and people involved throughout the food system. Moreover, sometimes, actions taken to improve one objective occur at the expense or detriment of the other.
Throughout Asia, food safety, which relates to risk of illness from foods and drinks consumed, is a real problem. It stems mainly from contamination with biological pathogens during unhygienic food handling and preparation, including the use of dirty water, chemical agents from excessive use of pesticides, antibiotics and preservatives, or insufficient processing and storage methods that can deteriorate food quality and increase exposure to pathogens.
“With urbanisation and income growth, Vietnam’s ‘supermarketisation’ policy is set to marginalise and close traditional retail outlets like wet markets, and instead promote and favour modern retail outlets such as supermarkets and convenience stores. The goal was to improve food safety as companies could be held responsible for issues that might arise from food they sold, a much harder thing to track in traditional markets”
Jessica Raneri and Sigrid Wertheim-Heck
As countries urbanise and develop, the food environment that people are accustomed to starts to transform. Modern shops like supermarkets replace traditional street wet markets. Consumers are exposed to more marketing and different food choices – particularly processed, new and imported foods. Life often also gets busier, with less time to procure and prepare food.
This coincides with changing food systems affecting how and from where food is supplied: the distance between where food is grown and where it is eaten grows longer, with more people and processes involved. Storage and processing are challenges even in rural areas with shorter food chains. Through all these changes, food safety concerns grow, shaping how food is sold and consumed.
Transforming food environments are drawing global attention for their influence on global health and nutrition. The United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition devoted its annual flagship publication this year to food environments to highlight how changes in this area can affect nutrition in urban and rural settings.
In many countries, like Vietnam, for generations, people shopped in local, traditional ‘wet’ markets. Confidence was a matter of trust and experience: consumers trusted the food they were purchasing was safe because they had been buying it from the same person for as long as they could remember.
Our work in Hanoi, Vietnam, explores how food safety policies can embrace the diversity in retail options for the consumer, while also looking for ways to improve food safety in traditional open-air markets or ‘wet’ markets. We described the potential to turn ‘either-or’ into ‘win-win’ in the recent UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition report, ‘Food Environments: Where People Meet the Food System’.
With urbanisation and income growth, Vietnam’s ‘supermarketisation’ policy is set to marginalise and close traditional retail outlets like wet markets, and instead promote and favour modern retail outlets such as supermarkets and convenience stores. The goal was to improve food safety as companies could be held responsible for issues that might arise from food they sold, a much harder thing to track in traditional markets.
However, this push towards supermarkets and away from wet markets has had some unintended consequences, putting food and nutritional security at risk – particularly for the urban poor. For these consumers, supermarkets are less accessible and fresh foods that are the core of a healthy diet are often more expensive. One could argue supermarkets provide access to a wider variety of foods, however, it depends on how we define variety, and what kind of diversity we want on our plates.
A more biologically diverse diet – with a higher number of species consumed – is associated with better diet quality. Traditional markets often provide consumers direct access to a wide range of agrobiodiverse and nutritious foods, perceived as not viable for supermarkets’ larger-scale production and value chains. Meanwhile, modern outlets offer a wider range of imported and ultra-processed foods which are associated with increasing rates of noncommunicable diseases and obesity.
More options and mixed messages can result in confusion and misinformation. People understand the importance of good nutrition and dietary diversity but are also drawn to foods that are convenient and familiar, as well as what their children want. Misleading advertising and safety messages can muddy the waters for consumers who are struggling to find a way to fit food into their busy lives and daily routines.
The results we see in places like Hanoi are as mixed and complicated as the messaging: people still perceive the fruits and vegetables at supermarkets as less fresh, lower quality, and more expensive than what they can buy at wet markets. Many urban poor eschew supermarkets, prioritising instead convenience and familiarity. As wet markets close, they turn to informal (and often illegal) street vendors to get the fresh fruits and vegetables they are accustomed to, but at the cost of increasing their food safety risk.
Getting to ‘win-win’ does not mean addressing some problems while creating others, and our research shows there are potential benefits from using both traditional and modern markets. The question is not ‘which approach should we focus on’, but rather how we can harness positive health and nutrition aspects from retail diversity within our food environment while maintaining affordability, convenience and healthy diets.
- Identifying innovative food safety policies and interventions, such as participatory guarantee systems, to improve wet market vendor hygiene and food handling practices;
- Implementing low-cost safety control mechanisms and policies to renovate and upgrade existing traditional fresh food outlets, improve business standards, and offer an alternative to closure;
- Removing supermarket access barriers for poorer consumers: time, convenience, cost, and perceptions, without jeopardizing diet quality; and
- Creating more effective in-store food quality control and consumer awareness campaigns to improve trust in food safety guarantees and education about diet and health risks associated with ultra-processed foods, and the importance of continuing to eat fresh produce.
These actions will give consumers more choices — not less — within their long-established daily routines and food shopping practices. Ensuring access to safe, healthy and affordable food empowers consumers to improve their diets.
We must break out of this ‘either-or’ mindset to make real progress towards building healthy, sustainable food systems. Recognising food safety and better nutrition are concurrent challenges will enable us to pursue solutions that are win-win.
Jessica Raneri is a nutrition research specialist with Bioversity International, working with the CGIAR Research Programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health; and Sigrid Wertheim-Heck is a senior research fellow with the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.