From healthy pigs to hygienic bakeries, local producers are raising the bar when it comes to quality in order to meet the more discerning requirements of Cambodia’s growing middle class
On a one-hectare farm in Kandal province on the northern outskirts of Phnom Penh, 100 sprightly pigs crowd around feed troughs to receive their daily intake of soybeans and broken rice.
The healthy diet makes pork more flavorful than pigs sold in local markets, which are raised on ground-up meat byproducts, according to Thierry Pradalet, executive director of the pig farm, La Ferme de Bassac.
The nutritious diet coupled with an absence of growth-inducing hormones or disease-preventative antibiotics gives the pork a healthy white color instead of the darker hue of market meat.
“Point to any pig and my manager can tell you which sow it came from,” Pradalet said of the 700 pigs on the farm.
Established five years ago with only three pigs, La Ferme de Bassac supplies some of Phnom Penh’s better known up-market establishments, the likes of The Common Tiger, La Terrazza and Open Wine, and is one of just a few in Cambodia to achieve international accreditation.
Farms like La Ferme de Bassac are among the few raising the quality of Cambodia’s local food supply chain. Industry insiders say there have been improvements over the past decade, but there is still a lot of work to be done to boost the quality of local produce – from farm to table.
Protected by vacuum-sealed bags, La Ferme de Bassac produce their pork at about $2.75 per kilo, which is $0.50 more than it would cost for those in the local market, according to Pradalet.
While it is more expensive to rear a small batch of 120 pigs a month, Pradalet said it was needed to ensure high-quality standards.
Such standards are essential in an industry where reputation means everything, Pradalet explains.
“If Hun Sen orders pork at a restaurant – because that is what they like to eat – if the dish is bad, then they will call me up and say my pork was bad.”
One of Cambodia’s largest food and beverage companies, and a customer of La Ferme de Bassac, is Meas Development Holding. Meas has a diverse portfolio of restaurants that include, Blue Pumpkin, Emperors of China, the Hard Rock café in Siem Reap and Sajibuni – the food and beverage concession holder at Cambodia’s two international airports.
Pork is one of the easier products to trace back its source, according to Guillaume Simon, food and beverage project manager at Meas.
While the company sources a lot of its vegetables and chicken locally, products like beef and dairy have to be imported, though Simon expects locally sourced beef to be not too far away.
For Meas, the standards are high. From the way meat is raised, slaughtered, transported and prepared, the firm needs to ensure that every step of the supply chain is carried out to a uniform standard and is documented.
In the Blue Pumpkin production centre, chefs delicately align macaroons in neat rows on a clean tray. The centre not only supplies pastries and ice cream to its own restaurants, but also several other hotels and restaurants in Cambodia, such as the Plantation in Phnom Penh and – with the help of a refrigerated truck – Villa Vedici in Kampot.
“We do one last quality check before it’s leaving to the driver, it’s the metal detector,” Simon said, explaining that it is a common practice in developed countries where safety standards are enforced.
“Step by step like this, we are going to guarantee that we are in control of it,” he said.
The company is currently working with local producers to attain an international food safety certification. Known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification, it hopes to have it in place by 2016.
“[We are] building the foundation, because it’s not yet in place,” said Simon.
According to Romain Grosjean, division manager of ingredients at Jebsen and Jessen in Cambodia and also a partner of La Ferme de Bassac, most international companies import meat from Thailand or Vietnam.
“You have very few compliant meat suppliers in the Kingdom, and I would be very surprised if each and every single eatery sources from them,” said Grosjean.
The main meat sellers are “wet-market” sellers, he added, referring to meat left out in the open at markets.
Food hygiene remains a serious issue, and in the majority of Cambodia’s abattoirs, terrified animals are butchered and tossed onto grimy cement floors, according to Grosjean.
Last month, the government released a draft food law, which discusses food safety systems similar to HACCP, but only as “voluntary standards”.
The law is supposed to deal with safety, labeling and advertising of food for local consumption, import and export. It will ask questions of traceability and hygiene that are also required for HACCP certification, according to the draft document.
But lifting the standards won’t be so straightforward. Smaller restaurants need to cater to the majority of Cambodians who live on much tighter budgets, and for those that do know a law is in the pipeline, adhering to its obligations is still an unknown.
Menu prices at Song Tra Restaurant, on the corner of Sothearos and Sihanouk Boulevards, have barely budged since it opened in 1991, thanks to the owner Meng Srey Mom’s relationship with her suppliers.
“We’re a small business, so we’re not going to worry about the new law yet. I will observe if we need any specific improvements in our food when it comes out,” she said.
Te Taing Por, president of the Federation of Associations for Small- to Medium-sized Enterprises of Cambodia, said that the businesses may need to absorb some costs when the new law comes into force, but he didn’t expect it to be a major hike.
But a greater onus should be put on vendors to ensure consumer safety is a priority, he said.
“We need to do a lot of promotion to inform the public, improve the law enforcement and encourage the sellers to obey the laws,” he said.
Avoiding the high-costs of developing food traceability measures, Luu Meng, Cambodia’s most well-known chef and the president of Cambodia Hotel Association, said it would be advisable for small businesses to work collectively.
This would also provide an opportunity for local firms to scale-up their supply operations, or create new companies that help bolster the supply chain, he said.
“I think it’s a matter of time and education, so if everyone starts to get this, then it will be easier,” he said. “We can help and assist to help make this look good, not only for the big boys but also for the SMEs to benefit from food security changes.”
For Luu Meng’s own portfolio of businesses, which includes popular restaurants Malis and Topaz, he sources at least 80 per cent of ingredients locally, while his non-Cambodian cuisine restaurants import 40 per cent of ingredients.
“It’s a lot easier to find products locally now. Five or 10 years ago, it was a bit difficult,” he said.
An emerging middle class of Cambodian consumers too, who sit at the top of the supply chain, will also play a role in driving standards, the restaurateur said.
“When you make a better income, you start to enjoy product of quality.”
Additional Reporting Sokunthea Hang.