Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 9 January 2014


A street food vendor in downtown Yangon

A street food vendor in downtown Yangon

Myanmar Restaurants Association is taking on the task of improving street food hygiene – one vendor at a time.

On a blog called Escaping the Desk, traveller Darryl Hall took the trouble – while ill with food poisoning in Myanmar – to provide 10 tips for fellow travellers to avoid the same fate. His number one tip is to: “Avoid mostly all street food (that includes those delicious looking samosas). This isn’t Thailand or Vietnam, instead think more like it’s a mix between eating on the street in India and China.”

According to the General Secretary of the Myanmar Restaurants Association (MRA), U Kyaw Myat Moe, the health risks associated with eating street food in Myanmar is precisely what the organisation is trying to combat by launching an education campaign among street food vendors. With the Asian Development Bank predicting that the number of tourist arrivals will surge to 7.5 million by 202o, U Kyaw Myat Moe told Mizzima Business Weekly that there’s no time to waste.

 Kyaw Myat Moe, Secretary General of Myanmar Restaurants Association

Kyaw Myat Moe, Secretary General of Myanmar Restaurants Association

“Food hygiene is a national issue – too many people are getting sick from eating street food. Our aim is to the raise standards to become on a par with countries such as Singapore and Thailand,” he said.

Starting from March, MRA will begin selecting street food vendors to take part in training sessions on food safety and personal hygiene. U Kyaw Myat Moe said that to qualify for the program, vendors must have been in business for at least five years and attract a high volume of customers. MRA will begin by selecting two street food vendors from what the general secretary described as “tourist hot spots” in Yangon’s Kyauktada, Lanmadaw, Latha, Pazundaung, Botataung and Pabedan townships.

The education campaign will also be rolled out in popular tourist destinations around the country where the MRA has branch offices, such as Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Ngwe Saung and Chaung Tha beaches and Taunggyi.

“Our goal is to train street food vendors about basic cleanliness – such as not handling money and food at the same time and keeping their shops free of dirt and flies. We’ll encourage vendors to spread this knowledge to other vendors and we will be very glad to hear from other vendors who may interested in getting involved,” he said.

Items designed to promote better hygiene – such as mesh insect covers, gloves and disposable utensils – will also be provided to street food vendors free of charge, thanks to six private companies agreeing to sponsor the program.

“We’ll ask each individual vendor what they need and we also hope to be able to make the smaller shops into something more established as a construction company is one of the sponsors,” U Kyaw Myat Moe said.

A young girl selling street food near 50th Street in Yangon

A young girl selling street food near 50th Street in Yangon

He added that MRA is also in discussions with the government about improving water supplies in the downtown area so that street food vendors are better equipped to clean re-useable plates and cutlery – and to give their shops a thorough clean at the end of the day. MRA is hopeful that more street food vendors will contact MRA to take part in similar programs in the future.

Those who take part in the program will be provided with long-term support from the MRA, which was established in 2011. Those who successfully complete the training sessions may be eligible to become a member of MRA, which currently has 1,400 members out of an estimated 5,000 restaurants across the country.

According to Unilever Food Solutions, the food service industry in Southeast Asia is valued at US$27.9 billion, with some 1.3 million businesses operating throughout the region. Unilever said the majority of dining options in Southeast Asia are street based. In Myanmar particularly, due to the paltry incomes earned and the aforementioned lack of water, street food vendors often take short-cuts that can result in nasty illnesses for their customers – which have also the potential to turn very serious, such as salmonella poisoning.

Since 2010, Unilever Food Solutions has been training members of Myanmar’s more formal hospitality industry about the importance of food hygiene. According to MRA Vice-Chairman U Sonny Aung Khin, “We also need to upgrade hygiene standards in restaurants. There are many restaurants employing staff who are still using their fingers to make a salad rather than wearing gloves or making sure their hands are clean.”

Myanmar Resturants' Association logo

Myanmar Resturants’ Association logo

MRA and Unilever won the tender to cater for more than 5,000 athletes at the SEA Games in December and they are currently catering for 2,000 athletes during the Para-SEA Games in Nay Pyi Taw.

“I’d say the first SEA Games catering job was successful because there were no reports of anyone getting stomach upsets after eating our food. However some Singaporean and Myanmar athletes got sick because they ignored the warning from organisers not to eat outside the venues. Apparently [athletes] got sick after drinking juices – juice is dangerous in Myanmar,” U Sonny Aung Khin toldMizzima Business Weekly.

Sonny Aung Khin, Vice-Chairman of Myanmar Restaurants Association

Sonny Aung Khin, Vice-Chairman of Myanmar Restaurants Association

U Kyaw Myat Moe revealed that once the labour intensive task of raising standards to an acceptable level of hygiene is achieved, an open air night bazaar will open close to The Strand Hotel in Botataung Township sometime in 2015.

“We’re discussing the arrangements for a night bazaar with YCDC [Yangon City Development Committee] at the moment, who have been keenly watching our various activities. There will also be a handicrafts market at the night bazaar, but the first step is to get the food right,” he said.