Melaka, western Malaysia (Reuters) – Western food is not only a luxury but a necessity in Malaysia, where more than 90 percent of the population live in poverty, said a food safety expert who has studied the country’s food safety system for years.
“It is the most important thing in my life,” said the retired doctor, who has written extensively about the problems of western food.
“In a country where 70 percent of people live on less than $2 a day, western food has to be the most nutritious food.”
Malaysia is a major exporter of western foods, but not just for the sake of it, said Dr Shahnawaz Alam, the head of the National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s food and water division.
The country’s biggest export, beef, is the second most popular in the world behind the United States, but Malaysia’s beef is also the second-worst-selling product in the Asia-Pacific region.
Malaysian beef prices have shot up more than 10 times in the past two years, but most of the rise has been caused by a rise in demand and price rises from foreign beef processors.
“The price of beef has increased by around 150 percent in the last five years,” Alam said.
Malay Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has made western food a priority and has promised to improve its quality and sustainability, including by reducing animal welfare standards.
But in the short term, western foods are just one aspect of a country’s problems with food safety.
“Malaysians are facing the challenge of having too much food,” Alam told Reuters.
“What you see in Western countries is that people have become accustomed to eating a lot of food, and they have become complacent with the problem of food safety.”
Malay officials have struggled to tackle the problem.
Food Safety Authority director-general Abdul Razak Ahmad told Reuters that food safety in Malaysia was a “hugely complex problem”.
“There are several areas of concern, and we are working on all of them.
I would not say that the situation is good,” Ahmad said.”
We have to look at the impact of the food we buy and the environment we put it in.”
But Alam said that Western food was the main cause of the countrys food safety problems, especially in the southern province of Sarawak.
“Westerners come to Sarawk and they buy a lot more than other Malaysians,” he said.
Westerners also tend to buy more expensive food, Alam said, and that makes it harder to implement the government’s plans for improving food safety standards.
“They are buying more and more Western food and less and less traditional food, but they do not know how to prepare it properly,” Alam explained.
“There is a lot going on in the supply chain.”
In an attempt to address the problem, the government is trying to increase the quantity of food that is sent to supermarkets and to increase consumption of local food.
The government also plans to introduce an online food shopping service, with the aim of making buying easier and more affordable.
“I think it will help Malaysians to become more educated about Western food,” said Alam.
“They will see what they are buying, what they need to know, and then buy it.”