Tuesday, 6 February 2018

An Englishman in Kuala Lumpur


On short notice, not entirely for leisure, I find myself in Malaysia and without reliable internet hence the lack of blogging.

It is a welcome antidote to the tedium of the Brexit debate but at the same time an opportunity to look at the rest of the world through the prism of standards and regulations which will no doubt be a rich seam of blogging upon my return. This dispatch is a little bit random but I will elaborate in future posts why these such observations are highly relevant.

Kuala Lumpur faces a major political battle as it races to licence and regulate street vendors. Aside from the peripheral street level issues their presence poses a headache for public health authorities as they attempt to gauge the scale of the problem. Malaysia has an ineffectual food safety surveillance system which hampers disease control efforts and frequently leads to embargoes on exports.

There are a number of priorities but among them are controlling the reputational damage to tourism in the era of TripAdvisor. A bad headline can lead to a collapse of revenue for an entire season.

Traceability is also a major issue as very often street vendor food is prepared in the home making food poisoning investigations more difficult.

Many assume it's the food and the general conditions of the outlets that lead to food poisoning, however an incident some years ago, leading to over a thousand reported cases of Cholera, was traced to an ice factory and a seaweed jelly distributor in Penang. Consequently street vendors are advised not to put ice in drinks.

When the top concern for the UN is presently antimicrobial resistance stopping antibiotics from working, disease prevention runs deep into UN sustainable development goals which requires systemic reform to food hygiene and city infrastructure.

Street vendors, however, are none too cooperative and prohibition attempts have proven impossible. Kuala Lumpur has instead embarked upon a regime of registration and training along with better public information but it's fighting a losing battle, not least since they are part of the attraction for more adventurous tourists.

It should also be noted that street vendors should not be unjustly targeted since school kitchens are routinely responsible for food poisoning with just one kitchen responsible for an outbreak of e.coli affecting nine hundred students.

Throughout Kuala Lumpur it is clear that street food is a major part of the culture and is intensely political. Its very existence is at odds with a number of public health goals where once again we see a conflict between necessary technocracy over democracy, where well meaning authorities with science based long term aims for sustainability are met with objections from ordinary people just trying to make a living with the little they have. It's not just a debate confined to the ever dismal Brexit bickering.

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