Eating out with friends and families, once a happy occasion, has now become like an adventure as the joy is laced by constant health safety concerns, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic that refuses to go away.
What we need is not only a set of new rules to ensure that the restaurants and all kinds of food outlets are hygienic and safe, while we also need their effective implementation.
The government keeps repeating that in the "new normal" Thailand, people must not let down their guard to prevent a new round of Covid-19. The government must do the same.
Food and eating out play a big part in Thai social life and are an important magnet for the country's tourism industry. To revive consumer confidence, the government has issued a set of strict rules for restaurants to comply with. For example, a one-metre space between tables in line with the social-distancing policy, regular cleaning of table surfaces, and strict hygiene for kitchen staff. Violations mean a business will be shut down.
But mere draconian rules and regulations cannot ensure their effectiveness.
Violations aside, the regulators are also to blame for the overall enforcement failure.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the urgency to rein it have exposed many weaknesses in the current system and a necessity to fix the loopholes. The law and regulations governing food outlets are no exception.
By law, restaurants and other food outlets must comply with rules and regulations to ensure hygiene standards. But violations and lax monitoring are commonplace, constantly exposing consumers to health hazards.
For better consumer protection in the wake of Covid-19 and long-term improvement of food safety standards, we need to address current problems in the government system that hinder change.
First and foremost, impractical rules and regulations.
At present, the eatery business is governed by the 1992 Public Health Act. Under this law, restaurant owners must obtain government licences to start their business. They must comply with legal requirements on building sanitation, food safety, hygienic food preparation, and proper storage. Their staff must also strictly follow the regulations.
Yet, many eateries do not observe the rules, not only because it is costly to do so, but also because the regulations are not practical. A case in point is the latest rule under the 2018 ministerial regulations on food outlets' sanitation which makes it mandatory for business operators and staff to obtain "identification cards for food handlers".
Aiming to protect consumer health, this rule requires operators and staff to pass training courses on food sanitation and hygiene before they are eligible to receive the mandatory ID cards. In practice, however, local governments are not capable of providing the training for all food outlets in their jurisdictions.
To fill the gap, the Health Department has outsourced 16 certified training companies. Yet, the measure is insufficient because there are more than 100,000 food outlets across the country.
Also, the training format is impractical. The regulation requires the participants to attend classroom training in person. Since they need to take days off and lose income when at the training, many simply refuse to go.
In issuing any laws or regulations, state agencies must pay more attention to practicality as well as the costs incurred to business operators.
For hygiene and sanitation training for eateries, the government must keep up with the times and technology by allowing online training and designing online tests to reduce the burden for business operators and staff both in time and money. Reducing costs will increase incentives for them to attend the training.
The second problem is inefficient monitoring of food outlets.
At present, the Public Health Act authorises local administrative bodies to oversee the eateries in their jurisdictions. These local governments have the authority to issue licences and monitor their eateries' sanitation and hygiene standards. They also have the duty to conduct mandatory field inspections at least once a year.
Due to insufficient personnel, however, local governments can only inspect a handful of eateries, leaving the rest unattended.
To fix this problem, the central government should intervene by allowing third-party inspection for local governments. To ensure high standards, these inspectors must be certified by the Health Department of the Public Health Ministry.
In addition, the Health Department must develop an online inspection system so consumers can rate and report the sanitation and hygiene conditions of the eateries from their experiences. Such an online consumer inspection system will automatically motivate business operators to maintain high standards. It will also help local governments address the problems quickly.
The third problem is outdated rules and regulations.
At present, many new types of eateries are not covered by the Public Health Act. They include food trucks, home kitchens, and online food delivery platforms which were very popular during the city lockdowns.
Consequently, these businesses are free from official monitoring.
These loopholes exist because the Public Health Act defines food outlets according to old practices. Under this law, there are only two types of food outlets. The first are food shops or restaurants. The second are food vendors in public spaces or street food.
Without proper and systematic monitoring and inspection, consumers are at risk of food poisoning and other health hazards. The case in point is the "fatal dumplings" incident last month. One died and more than 20 people suffered severe food poisoning from eating "homemade" dumplings contaminated by the salmonella bacteria.
This outdated law needs to be amended to better protect consumers.
Apart from expanding the definition of food outlets to keep up with the times, the authorities must set sanitation and hygiene standards for different types of eateries appropriately. The monitoring system must be practical and transparent. Sanitation and hygiene guidelines for business operators and vendors must also be clear to protect consumer health effectively.
As part of the legal amendments, the government should require food delivery platforms to make sanitation and hygiene inspection part of their company rules in screening food outlets to join their networks. They should also accept only the eateries which make it possible to trace their food back to their sources and where hygiene standard inspection is conducted routinely.
Strict sanitation and hygiene measures for all types of food outlets are necessary as part of state efforts to curtail the Covid-19 pandemic. This is difficult if the government fails to fix old problems of outdated laws and regulations.
The state authorities concerned should admit they do not have enough resources to conduct comprehensive monitoring and inspection themselves. Consequently, they should shift their policy from focusing only on punitive measures to offering incentives for food outlets so they are willing to maintain food hygiene, obtain the licences, and comply with state regulations.
As the city lockdowns ease and social life returns to normal, cooperation from the food businesses is essential to curtail Covid 19. For-long-term improvement of food hygiene and sanitation across the board, however, change must start with the government.
Fix outdated laws. Stop imposing impractical rules and regulations. Admit constraints. Facilitate change, don't inflict business burdens. Unless the government changes tack, the public will remain at risk when eating out or buying food, with or without the Covid-19 threat.
Urairat Jantarasiri is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.