Thol Sreyleak, 35, is a resident of O’Bek Ka’am commune of Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. The last time she got food poisoning was in May and it was so severe she was admitted to hospital. The experience made her family of four start thinking about making their diet safer as this was the third time Sreyleak had suffered from food poisoning.

The food poisoning incidents took a lot of time away from her daily business, so Sreyleak and her family to decided to join a project to find organic and safe vegetables at the market.

“I was poisoned and had to be hospitalised. The first time was cauliflower poisoning, the second was soybean poisoning and the last was durian poisoning. In the case of durian poisoning, I had abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting until I was hospitalised and I spent $140,” she said.

After her experiences with poisoning, she worried about her health. What makes it even more difficult for her is that her stomach and intestines are weak to begin with and she would feel the pain immediately if she ate bad vegetables or fruits.

“Every day I have to eat very carefully. I’m really worried because foods [recognised as safe] are expensive. I do not know if there is any food that I can eat that isn’t harmful to my health. If I want safe foods, I have to go to markets selling naturally-grown produce, but the cost is high compared to my daily income and it is not affordable,” she said.

Due to concerns about the impact that food safety was having on people’s health in the country, the government has enacted legislation like the law on food safety and the law on plant protection and phytosanitation.

On June 8, the Law on Food Safety was promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni after sailing through the National Assembly on May 11 and the Senate on May 18.

Consisting of 11 chapters and 43 articles, the law applies to food quality and safety management that covers all stages of the food production chain and food businesses in Cambodia.

The law sets out the framework and mechanisms for managing and ensuring the safety, quality, hygiene and legitimacy of food at all stages of the food production chain in order to provide health protection and food safety to consumers, ensuring an honest and healthy food trade.

Pen Sovicheat, undersecretary of state and spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce, said that market and street vendors were one of the ministry’s targets for promoting good hygiene and better quality to attract tourists.

The ministry considers promoting the sale of foods in the markets and on the streets that is hygienic, safe and of high-quality as the main priority.

“The food that often serves the tourism sector and provides the livelihoods of the people at the middle and low income levels is the food sold on the streets and in the markets, which must be kept clean because hygiene reflects quality and safety, “ Sovicheat said.

The Law on Protection of Plants and Phytosanitation, with 15 chapters and 113 articles, was promulgated by the King on May 3. Governing the management of phytosanitary and plant protection measures, the law is designed to safeguard national plant resources and prevent the spread of diseases and harmful agents.

The law also aims to improve agricultural productivity and food security, as well as ensure that plants and agricultural products meet minimum sanitary, quality and safety standards.

The law also covers trade facilitation, export and import, transportation of crops and plant products – all aimed at contributing to the socio-economic development and promotion of sustainable welfare and public health, natural resources and agro-ecosystems in Cambodia.

Sreyleak said that after experiencing food poisoning many times, she changed her daily diet and began buying fruits and vegetables only from known sources.

“I clean the vegetables with vegetable wash when I get them home. For some necessary vegetables with no trusted sources in the market, I buy them wholesale to get a cheaper price,” she said.

Sreyleak requests that all vegetable growers think about the health of the people eating their produce rather than only thinking of their profits.

“I also urge vendors to display and store vegetables hygienically, because the challenge at the point of sale is hygiene and sometimes poisoning is not caused by chemical toxins alone, it can be bacteria and viruses as well,” she said.

A woman dishing up food buffet-style at Kandal market in February. Heng Chivoan

Every year around the national holidays, government ministries and institutions make announcements calling on people to be careful about food safety and to pay attention to how they are cooking and storing their food, because mass food poisoning cases often occur as a result of large communal meals.

On the occasion of World Food Safety Day 2022 on June 7, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said food safety was an important and necessary factor for everyone’s health which should not be overlooked.

She called on all people to pay attention to their family’s food and especially to implement good food safety and hygiene practices by avoiding any food that expired or was not stored properly.

She also advised all consumers who have health problems after eating to go to hospital or consult with doctors without delay.

At the opening ceremony of the Youth Forum on “Food Safety and Micronutrient Incorporation” at the Prek Leap National Institute of Agriculture in May, Sok Silo – secretary-general of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) – said that the food on our plates had a large influence on our health.

“We all wish to eat high-quality and safe food to ensure we are healthy, but food can become dirty or toxic due to excessive use of chemicals, compromising its safety at any stage of the food system,” he said.

Silo added that those stages were production, processing, distribution, storage and consumption and the primary responsibility for safety rested with the producers and processors of the food.

He said that in Cambodia the general population, including young people, were very concerned about food safety and always talked about the issue of vegetables, fruits, fish and meat being sold at the market that contained chemicals which could affect people’s health.

“We all have to work together for the safety and wellbeing of consumers,” he said. “Unsafe food poses a global health threat to everyone, but especially to infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick, who are most vulnerable to food safety issues.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 220 million children develop diarrhea each year and 96,000 die from food safety issues. It says that unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition that threatens the nutritional status of the most vulnerable.

A report by the Food Safety Bureau under the health ministry’s Department of Pharmaceutics, Food, Medical Equipment and Cosmetics shows that from 2015-21, 119 people died from food poisoning out of a total of 4,699 reported victims.

A 42-year-old NGO worker named Sotheary told The Post that she used to buy food from loyal sellers who only sold good, fresh, safe and exchangeable items in case of any problems.

“Food storage is also important. For me, vegetables, eggs, fish and meat bought from the market, I always wash, chop and dry it well and then put it in plastic containers stored in the refrigerator to be easy to find and use later,” she said. “It is important for the seller to be honest and conscientious about their business.”

According to the report of the commerce ministry’s Consumer Protection, Competition and Fraud Repression Directorate-General (CCF) in 2021, officials inspected markets 569 times and destroyed over 36 tonnes of non-compliant goods, including 2,340 litres of a spray to use on plants that was not properly labelled.

According to the report, officials also intercepted a truck transporting seven tonnes of shrimp injected with carboxymethyl cellulose jelly to make them appear larger and fresher and 320kg of pork offal.

The report further said that over the past year, CCF officials have inspected the quality of alcohol and all kinds of hand sanitisers and found many that contained methanol. A total of 191,953 litres of methanol was confiscated from warehouses, markets and pharmacies and then destroyed in these operations.