By Valeria Mendoza

Meet Malyheng Chhoeun, a graduate student at the Royal University of Agriculture, who is delving into the vital field of food safety. Originally from Kampot province, Malyheng has earned her bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the same field. She brings her academic knowledge and passion to the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety project in Cambodia. Learn about her journey in this food safety and nutrition initiative and the impact she is making in Cambodia.

What motivated you to pursue a career in food science?

I have a passion for learning about food safety. The potential impact of these initiatives on a broad scale has always fascinated me. After all, safeguarding food safety is intricately linked to

human well-being, aligning ideally with my academic pursuits. During my undergraduate years, I was particularly captivated by the multifaceted aspects of creating safe and nourishing food. The potential difference that ensuring food safety and enhancing its nutritional value for widespread consumption deeply intrigued me.

I’ve found a strong sense of resonance with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety (FSIL). Joining my work with FSIL offers me a platform to actively contribute to my aspirations. What’s even more exciting is our shared objectives, which provide a robust foundation for enabling impactful collaborations.

What questions are you addressing through your Food Safety Innovation Lab research?

Currently, my research focus is centered on the microbiological aspects of cross-contamination within wet markets. Our study zeroes in on critical pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella, discovering potential pathways of cross-contamination that can taint fresh vegetables. Given the widespread consumption of raw vegetables, which is especially prominent in Cambodia, understanding how these pathogens can potentially affect people’s health is of importance for food safety in Cambodia.

My focus has been primarily on the market level. Within this scope, I’ve chosen to concentrate on the infrastructure aspect, specifically how sellers arrange their vegetables. In the wet markets of Cambodia, it’s a common practice for many sellers to place their products directly on the ground. Unfortunately, this often leads to potential contamination from various sources such as liquids or insects.

My objective is to highlight the inherent risks associated with this practice. By gathering evidence, I aim to illustrate that placing vegetables on the ground isn’t a safe approach, particularly concerning food safety. The underlying premise is to emphasize the importance of market infrastructures. Alongside this, I’m addressing the critical issue of cross-contamination that occurs in the vicinity of these setups. Factors like bathroom facilities and waste disposal play a significant role in this context, and my research dives into these aspects to shed light on their significance.

What are some of the food safety challenges in Cambodia?

When discussing food safety, it becomes evident that developing countries face significant challenges within the food value chains, particularly concerning critical aspects like sanitation and hygiene. While research has been conducted in these areas, its scope remains somewhat limited. Robust and comprehensive research is essential to address these concerns effectively.

Moreover, the concept of food safety is relatively novel within the Cambodian context. Unlike developed countries, where awareness about safe food practices is more established, there is a noticeable lack of awareness in developing nations like Cambodia. In such settings, the need to enhance awareness becomes important. This is where evidence-based research plays a pivotal role. As a master’s student involved in projects related to food safety, my role takes on a crucial dimension. I delve into the context, working to understand the perspectives of various stakeholders along the value chain, including producers, sellers, and consumers. This understanding is integral to bridging the gap in awareness. By systematically collecting insights and evidence, we can progressively raise said awareness about the significance of food safety. This process might be gradual and slow, but each step forward contributes to the overall goal of improving health and well-being.

What is your approach to raising awareness about food safety?

To begin, it’s important to acknowledge that many people in Cambodia aren’t familiar with the concept of food safety. In this context, my approach would involve presenting relatable scenarios that might occur in their daily lives. For instance, I would discuss the causes behind instances of diarrhea – something most individuals have experienced or witnessed. By delving into the reasons behind such occurrences, I can gradually introduce the connection to food safety.

The key lies in bridging the gap between their reality and the concept itself. This means linking the concept to their lifestyles, well-being, and everyday experiences. If I can make this connection tangible and relatable, it could lead to a better understanding of why food safety matters and how it directly impacts their lives. Ultimately, the goal is to bring awareness by making the concept both understandable and relevant within their own context.

What are your aspirations upon completing your master’s degree?

After completing my master’s degree research, my goal is to identify insights that hold significance for a broader audience. I would like to apply the knowledge I’ve accumulated thus far and explore avenues for refining and enhancing existing practices within the realm of food safety. My pursuit also involves seeking opportunities to expand my understanding further, with the intention of making substantial contributions to the field.

Furthermore, the intricacies of our focus, particularly on raw foods, make the challenge quite formidable. Raw food consumption indeed poses a considerable risk to our gastrointestinal well-being, potentially leading to various illnesses. This becomes even more concerning when we think about the vulnerability of children. The impact on their health can be severe, potentially resulting in malnutrition or hindrances in their overall development.

My aspiration is to contribute to this field, potentially within the public sector or by collaborating with relevant organizations, should the opportunity arise. My motivation is rooted in the desire to play a part in ensuring that safe and nourishing food is accessible to all. This personal commitment stems from my own experiences of falling ill due to unsafe food. These experiences have provided me with a firsthand understanding of the intricacies involved in food processing and the potential problems it can pose to our health.

Valeria Mendoza is a program assistant with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety and is pursuing a degree in Food Science at Purdue University.