For Vietnamese to have safe, clean food, people are learning how to store and track products and spot risks of contamination. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Fred Wissink.

Are you washing your hands properly? An organisation here suggests rinsing the palms, then the reverse side of the hand, then between the fingers. Finally, run your nails along your palms.

This is one of the tips Assist Vietnam is sharing with supermarkets, food suppliers, restaurants, canteens, and just about everyone else working in the food industry. The aim of this 18-month project is to get stakeholders more concerned about the safety and hygiene of the food they handle — not just so that they do a good job, but so that the rest of us benefit, too.

Assist is one of many groups, including those in the government, that have been looking for ways to improve safety standards across Vietnam when it comes to what we put in our stomachs. The movement comes at a time when those living in Vietnam read regularly in the press about poisonous noodles, recalled milk powder, or just about any ‘questionable’ product smuggled across the border from China. As Vietnamese incomes increase, more are starting to demand organic or otherwise reliable sources of food.

“The younger generation cares more because they don’t have the habit of going to the wet market,” says Bui Nguyen Trong Thien, a student at the University of Agriculture and Forestry. “I really think that the situation is improving in Vietnam.”

Thien and his classmates recently took part in a two-day training with Assist, an NGO that promotes environmental and social causes in developing countries. They learned how to check meat (red and elastic is good, brown isn’t) and fish (beware any bulging eyeballs). They learned the different temperatures at which to store different goods properly, as well as the types of pallets on which to store them. Wooden is better for vegetables, plastic for meat, poultry and fish.

They also discussed the importance of the farm-to-fork or farm-to-table concept. Few entities in Vietnam are prioritising it now, but the idea is to give, say, an individual carrot a code that follows it from the soil in Da Lat to the truck to the factory to the retailer, all the way to the consumer.

“If there’s any problem after eating the food, they can trace it back,” Thien says.

Training this group of students, most of whom are majoring in food science and technology, is an investment in the future. But Assist also hosted similar events for those already handling our food, such as Metro. The supermarket is fighting a scandal from late last year, when local officials fined it for contaminated beef, pork, lettuce, and wastewater. Metro denied the problems, though news later emerged of issues with seafood, chicken, cheese, and butter.

The chain was collaborating with Assist before the fines came to light. They reviewed the types of contamination that could threaten our food supply: physical (a hair falling onto a slab of salmon), chemical, biological, or environmental (part of a tool chipping off). They discussed how to improve storage to follow the first-in-first-out model, which requires bringing products out from storage for sale in the order in which they were received. In response, some businesses will have to change their storage layouts, so that there’s another door or a walkway to reach the older supplies.

“They’re happy because they know this in theory, but need tips to apply it,” Assist project manager Nguyen Tu says of the participants.

The participants know many of the recommendations already, she says, “But in real life, when they’re working, many problems happen.”

Another concept to maintain sanitation is “one flow”, which means a supermarket or restaurant receives goods at one end of a room, but dispose of them at the other end, so there’s no overlap and risk for contamination.

Besides the supermarket, Assist has done inspections of quan and canteens, where they’d find food on the floor or dirty machinery. Some places look clean in front and filthy in back. Tu is especially wary of the very small eateries that admit to leaving meat outside overnight and mixing it with MSG to maintain appearances.

“We want to do more, because the majority of small- and medium-sized businesses, it seems it’s not a big deal for them, in comparison with doing business,” she says.

While she understands the profit motive, Tu is trying to convince shop owners that they just need a small investment in the beginning — for, say, Tupperware — and they’ll continue to keep food safe and clean with little cost.

Of course cost can’t be disregarded. It matters to customers, too.

“I can say that money is everything,” says Pham Nguyen Thanh Phong, another student in the training. Vietnamese might know a product is subpar, but buy it anyway.

Phong added that the government and big business have similar considerations. “To test the products requires high-tech machines,” he says. “Besides, Vietnam is still a developing country, we don’t have the money to purchase modern equipment.”

But it won’t stay a developing country for long. As Vietnam’s economy grows, so too will its desire and ability to ensure safe and clean food.