Inexpensive, open-all-hours and endlessly varied — street food is a staple for many, especially in big cities like Jakarta.
But concern over potentially fatal food-borne illness has put street food hygiene under the microscope. Data from the Health Ministry suggests that food-related illness is the third leading cause of death among patients at hospitals across Indonesia.
In 2010 the ministry recorded 274 deaths from 41,081 cases of typhoid and paratyphoid fever, caused by several Salmonella bacteria species transmitted when people handling food fail to wash their hands properly after going to the toilet.
There are dozens of other bacterial, viral and parasitic disease-causing pathogens that thrive at street stalls due to lack of refrigeration and toilets, dirty dishwater, contaminated ice and drinks, and more.
Despite these risks, however, Jakartans can’t live without their street food — so they are looking to Governor Joko Widodo to apply the successful reforms that he implemented while as mayor of Solo, in Central Java.
“Street food vendors can be valuable for the city if the local government has sufficient commitment to organize the traders and be strict about imposing regulations,” said Andrinof Chaniago, public policy analyst at the University of Indonesia.
Andrinof said Joko’s first step in improving street food safety in Solo was to relocate street food vendors to a monitored site called Gladag Langen Bogan (Galabo).
Now regarded as a culinary center, Galabo attracts both local and foreign tourists, customers reveling in the choices available in the one food fair.
Under the city’s administrative supervision, the culinary center is cleaner and food handling practices are easier to monitor.
Similarly in Singapore, Andrinof said, street vendors must be licensed and their stalls inspected periodically.
“Such policies can be applied here in Jakarta,” Andrinof said. “It should not be exactly the same, but we can adapt some of the good points. We need to immediately revamp some of Jakarta’s culinary destinations,” he added.
Andrinof suggested that Jakarta’s administration could improve food safety at street food hotspots like Bendungan Hilir in South Jakarta by organizing vendors, providing clean running water, proper drainage and garbage disposal systems.
“An organized culinary center is not only cleaner and healthier but will also attract more people,” he said.
Proprietors of roadside cafes, Andrinof said, should be encouraged to join the Indonesian Street Vendors Association, which claims to have 150,000 members nationwide.
With the governor estimating Jakarta’s street vendors at more than one million, however, most of the city’s food is served by non-members.
“The association must come up with standards, including cleanliness standards, the kinds of utensils acceptable for use, and even the size of basic amenities like tables and chairs. It will be good for both the sellers and the customers,” he said.
Health expert and former Indonesian Doctors Association chairman, Kartono Mohammad, voiced similar sentiments and urged the government to persuade street vendors to relocate to culinary centers.
“Provide them with what they need to do their business well. In return the traders must comply with hygiene standards set up by the government,” he said.
Kartono added that the city’s health office must provide training programs to educate vendors about hygiene and food safety.
“The government must be able to convince the traders that spending more money to maintain the cleanliness of their food will pay off, because most customers won’t mind paying more for healthier and cleaner street food,” he said.
“That training must be followed by random checks to see if the traders follow the rules,” he continued.
“Be a savvy customer, learn to differentiate healthy food from unhealthy,” said Roy Alexander Sparingga, the deputy supervisor of food safety and hazardous substances at the Food and Drugs Monitoring Agency (BPOM).
Under consumer protection laws, BPOM is only authorized to conduct random checks on packaged food. The agency can seize dangerous food and drugs and conduct tests to determine if the products contain dangerous substances.
Products with contaminated substances are reported to the police, according to BPOM policy.
However, Roy said, many producers walk away after a lenient sentence or paying a small fine.
“Unfortunately our authority is limited. That is why it is very important for customers to protect themselves as well,” he said.
He suggested that customers pay attention to the preparation of food, the cleaning of utensils and the general condition of the food stalls.
“Learn to check whether there’s any discoloration or change in the smell [of food],” he advised.
Roy said customers were encouraged to file a report with the authorities if they fell sick after eating street food.
“No report is ignored. Every single case will be processed and followed up, so please do not hesitate to report any case,” he said.
“I think it’s important for us as consumers to start learning to protect ourselves. We can’t demand the government be responsible for everything,” Nadya Septiani, a college student said.
The 21-year-old said she always carries wet tissues to wipe utensils and uses sanitizer gel to make sure her own hands are clean before eating, to minimize the risk of eating contaminated food.
“I also pay attention to the location of a food stall, Nadya said.
“If it’s too close to a sewer or exposed to vehicle fumes and dust I won’t eat there. I think we should be able to make smart choices.”