The popularity of pork makes it the most important animal protein source for Vietnamese consumers. A previous ACIAR-funded project identified a significant health risk, with up to 2 of every 10 pork consumers experiencing illness from food-borne diseases annually.
Funded by ACIAR, SafePORK is a collaboration between the International Livestock Research Institute, Hanoi University of Public Health, University of Sydney, Vietnam National University of Agriculture and National Institute of Animal Sciences. It aims to develop and test low-cost interventions to make pork safer for the community.
Pork has been a key staple protein in Vietnam for many years. It is also popular during festival periods and, for consumers, it’s versatile for home cooking.
‘About 80% of Vietnamese people eat pork every day so the project has a huge opportunity to create positive change for consumers,’ says Dr Pham Duc Phuc, Deputy Director of the Centre for Public Health and Ecosystem Research at Hanoi University of Public Health.
For producers, pigs require less land to raise than cattle or goats. Small-scale producers may be raising pigs primarily for their own households, knowing they can easily sell excess meat.
Pork production and supply
Pork in Vietnam is produced and sold in a range of contexts. There are 3 main markets for pork meat: informal or wet markets; emerging formal markets; and niche markets that are targeting small- and medium-scale producers. A lot of producers operate on a small scale to rear, slaughter and butcher their pigs, then sell their pork to provide direct income for family households.
Improved animal rearing and safer meat handling practices across the industry are creating new opportunities for smallholder farmers to sell more product, including into higher-value domestic markets.
For Ms Vu Thi Thuy, a retailer from Hung Yen province, pork generates half of the total income for her family. She and her husband slaughter and sell 2–3 pigs each day.
‘If there are food-borne diseases in pork, it critically reduces how much we can sell,’ says Ms Thuy.
‘If one person gets sick, that information gets shared with everyone in the community. Reducing these diseases means consumers feel more confident buying from my shop, and in higher quantities.’
Why market-based approaches?
Contamination points are not necessarily obvious. Many consumers take comfort in shopping with larger sellers and brands as they may have better-documented processes. However, when researchers on the SafePORK project collected samples from retailers, they found that samples from both supermarkets and informal wet markets had contamination present.
High-cost interventions (such as infrastructure upgrades) have been trialled with little success. These measures can’t generate change without effective training and incentives for the industry, as well as an enabling environment.
Smaller-scale interventions look to gradual, steady improvements in safety, based on evidence. A participatory approach that involves industry representatives and authorities ensures solutions are affordable and scalable for farmers, producers and sellers at all levels of the supply chain.
The SafePORK project team has developed and tested new research tools to investigate suitable interventions.
Project leader Dr Fred Unger of the International Livestock Research Institute says: ‘We’ve created food safety performance tools but we’re also utilising simpler changes with lower-investment requirements.
‘Nudges’ utilise positive reinforcement and suggestions to influence behaviour. We’re using visual cues, based on successful examples from the healthcare industry, to move producers one small step at a time towards better practice. When deployed at scale, these small changes make a huge difference.’
Small changes successfully implemented by working with the pork sellers include better hygiene practices (such as washing hands, surfaces and implements regularly), guarding against outside contamination (with aprons and appropriate footwear), utilising refrigeration where possible and reducing meat transport times.
Initiated in 2016, the project has trained more than 500 workers across the community, including slaughterers, retailers, canteen staff, health workers and consumers. All training programs have been developed to be gender-inclusive and have been successful in attracting female participants.
For Ms Luan Thi Tot, a pork retailer in Thai Nguyen province, raising pigs and selling pork is her primary household income. It covers daily expenses and school fees for her daughter. Ms Tot has received training, a guide and some equipment though the SafePORK project.
Ensuring better food safety practices across suppliers not only benefits consumers. It also ensures return clientele for sellers like Ms Luan, helping to generate consistent income for families.
‘Since COVID-19, high-income consumers often go to the supermarket or convenience store to buy pork. Consumers buy smaller quantities now and are more concerned with cleanliness,’ says Ms Luan.
‘Despite this, I’ve been able to maintain the same volume of pork sales as before. When consumers come to buy, they see better equipment and that the shop is cleaner. They trust me more and keep coming back to me to buy pork.’
The project team is now taking the low-cost interventions it designed and tested to an additional 10 slaughterhouses and 34 retailers in 3 provinces. The establishment of a local brand in Hoa Binh has created market linkages for farmers and producers to food retailers in Hanoi.
SafePORK is also linking with other food safety initiatives to share findings and ensure the project maximises its impact. Other projects in Vietnam are now planning to roll out the SafePork interventions to more than 300 retailers and 30 slaughterhouses across 6 provinces.
With an increasing understanding that human and animal health is connected, practical solutions that ensure safe animal and meat management practices at informal markets remains a hot-topic issue worldwide. SafePORK aims to not only find effective solutions to improving food safety in Vietnam but also share its findings with the scientific community worldwide.