27 November 2014 – Food safety in everyday life: shopping for fresh food on wet-markets in rural Vietnam

There is a new study by Sigrid Wertheim-Heck and colleagues about how Vietnamese consumers are making decisions about where they buy fresh vegetables and how they factor in the role of food safety (you can read it here).

Food safety is a major social and political issue in Vietnam, with government authorities discouraging wet-markets and supporting modernization of the food retail system through the development of supermarkets. However, wet markets remain the main place to buy fresh food in provincial cities and, as has been noted previously on this blog (see 18 April 2014), trust between traders and shoppers remains a crucial part of the trading exchange.

The choice of wet-market for the shoppers interviewed in this study was based on convenience for their habitual daily shopping for fresh vegetables (which they tend to do on foot) and food safety concerns (connected to pesticide residues etc.) are alleviated by shopping with the same small-scale local traders every day who they trust and who have direct links with production. This, the authors conclude, is a major reason why shoppers continue to favour the wet-market – they avoid having to use the ‘concrete skills and knowledge’ that is required when making decisions in the supermarket where there is only a label to trust.

The authors also note that, ‘to understand modernization processes, it is important to study traditions… [and this provides] essential clues for understanding why traditional trust relations survive under the increasing threats and anxieties generated by food-safety scandals’. The particular cultural context, with its long established and culturally embedded history, plays an important role in what is happening as traditional food provisioning systems jostle for position alongside the growth of supermarkets, and the authors conclude that the future may bring a kind of hybridization of traditional and modern food retailing where wet-markets remain, but policies supporting food safety become a more implicit part of vegetable provisioning through the market system. This could be effective, but as Christopher Mele and colleagues point out in an article about Singapore’s more modern wet-markets (see this blog 6 March 2014) other factors are also important for why people want to keep their markets; they note that ‘given the massive scale and rapid pace of contemporary urban redevelopment and accompanying social change, the collective attachment to wet markets anchors Singaporeans and provides a fragile basis for consistency and stability. In Singapore you don’t go the supermarket ‘to hang out!’ like you can on wet markets; they are viewed as a ‘social equaliser’.

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