A package of interventions focusing on improving hygiene conditions in the light of COVID-19 can help enhance the safety of food in traditional pork value chains of Vietnam.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the importance of a One Health approach in better tackling foodborne and zoonotic diseases. One Health is a useful paradigm for framing complex public health issues and addressing new global and public health challenges like COVID-19.
In Vietnam, researchers at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are embracing the One Health approach to address transboundary and intersectoral issues such as food safety, antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic diseases. With the generous financial support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), these researchers are working to improve the safety of pork in the smallholder pig value chain through two projects, one called the ‘reducing disease risks and improving food safety in smallholder pig value chains in Vietnam’ (PigRISK) and the other called ‘market-based approaches to improving the safety of pork in Vietnam’ (SafePORK).
Pork is the most important animal source food in Vietnam, making up 75 percent of meat consumed. More than 80 percent of pork is produced by smallholders, generating incomes for millions of pig farmers nationwide. Wet or traditional markets are the main means for consumers in Vietnam to purchase fresh pork. While these outlets address local demand, they are often poorly managed and practice poor hygienic standards leading to increased risks of pork contamination and transmission of diseases from pigs to human.
ILRI and its partners have recently trialled food safety interventions at small-scale slaughterhouses and market outlets in Vietnam to improve hygienic practices. Our research findings from the PigRISK and SafePORK projects show that microbial risks in pork through improper hygiene and cross contamination are likely to cause most food safety concerns. Researchers found high levels of contamination in pork with Salmonella present in 64% of pork sold at selected traditional markets across four provinces of Vietnam (Hung Yen, Hoa Binh, Ha Noi and Nghe An).
Given that various approaches such as Good Agriculture Practices (GAP), certification or traceability have been tried in the past with marginal uptake, our research team designed interventions using a systemic approach that included food safety performance assessments, participatory diagnosis, formative research, and pilot and test of interventions. A package of interventions is being trialled in Hung Yen Province.
At retail, the research team is introducing an intervention package to improve hygienic practices based on consultation with market authorities and retailers using participatory approaches. The interventions include separation of ready-to-eat and raw pork and intestines and frequent washing of meat selling surfaces and hands of sellers. In addition, interventions also aim at promotion of good-hygiene-pork branding to retailers. The project team tested hygienic cutting boards and selected retailers receiving cutting boards to test their feasibility for daily use since July 2019.
Interventions at slaughterhouses included the use of tailored stainless-steel grids to avoid the contact of carcasses with the slaughterhouse floor, frequent washing of hands and surfaces, and better separation of clean and dirty zones which further helps reduce contamination of carcasses.
Since early 2020, these interventions at retail and slaughter have been complemented by repeated training on good hygiene practices.
These SafePORK interventions come at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic. Current evidence indicates that coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets or contact. Consequently, hand hygiene, as currently promoted by SafePORK, is extremely important to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It also interrupts transmission of other viruses and bacteria. Thus, this crisis also offers opportunities to enhance compliance of engaged actors for better hygiene practices in the pork chains.
Placing food safety interventions at retail and slaughterhouse level in line with recommended prevention measures against COVID-19 gives the research team the opportunity to explore synergies in prevention and integrate COVID-19 into the project training manual and communications messages and materials.
The hope is that the current crisis can provide an opportunity to transform people’s behaviour towards better hygiene practices, which can help to achieve safer pork. Fred Unger, the principal investigator of SafePORK project, stated in the recent project review: ‘We plan to include more research and interventions on hand washing and disinfection in SafePORK in response to COVID-19 pandemic’.