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22.09.2005 Health

Food Safety, an Increasing Public Health Issue

By GNA

A GNA feature by Esther Amofah, AIJC Intern

Accra, Sept. 22, GNA - Food safety is increasingly becoming an important public health issue and great concern to everybody. This is due to widespread food borne diseases, which have affected children and adults due to the mushrooming of wayside food vendors. It is public knowledge that food, that is served by these street vendors are prepared in a dirty environment and not well cooked.

Driving along the streets of Accra, one could count a thousand and one food vendors by the wayside, and the environment in which these foods are prepared pose great danger to those who patronise them.

What has worsened the case is the influx of the so-called "check-check" fried rice and chicken selling joints dotted all over the place. One could hardly tell the source of the vegetables used in the preparation of the food.

Knowing about the water problems in the Metropolis, one could easily imagine the source of the water the farmers use to water their vegetables. At some places in Accra, vegetable farmers glaringly use water running through the gutters to water the vegetables meant for human consumption.

What is alarming is that before the raw ingredients get to the neatest professional kitchen, some amount of contamination might have already taken place along the supply chain due to poor agricultural practices, residual chemicals deposited on harvested crops, poor handling, haulage, storage and unhygienic practices at the point of sale.

Such harm when not corrected could result in health consequences leading to death in some cases.

Street food includes rice, waakye, kenkey, "check-check", beans and fried plantain, tuo zaafi and hausa koko.

School children whose parents are too busy looking for money and, therefore, cannot not prepare nutritious and hygienic meals for them are given money to buy food from the wayside.

These children are forced to take their breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner from the streets. These children pick all sorts of food borne diseases from what they eat.

Emmanuel Sasu, a 15-year-old pupil, was not spared the hazardous effects of eating from the street.

Emmanuel, in the course of eating beans and fried plantain sold on the street, cracked stones, which entered his teeth and was rushed to the hospital.

He bled profusely from the mouth because the gum had been affe cted. He underwent surgery and the affected teeth were extracted.

"I find it very difficult to eat and even chew meat," Emmanuel said. "This has made my life miserable. I have become an object of mockery by my friends at school and l sometimes feel like ending it all by committing suicide since I cannot freely mingle with friends for fear of being embarrassed if there is something funny and I laughed," he said bitterly.

It is true that one should be mindful of what to eat. But people patronise wayside food because of time and money. Wayside food is cheap and does not waste time to get since food vendors are all over Accra. People, who patronise street food have suffered from food borne diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid fever, food poisoning and worm infestation because of the poor handling of food, especially vegetables, right from the source.

From the food vendors' perspective, the variety, quality, preparation of foods and services are meant to just satisfy the needs of the consumer and not to waste resources and run at a loss. Street food vendors are known to contribute a significant amount of money to the economy.

Dr Paa-Nii Johnson, Head of Processing and Engineering Unit of the Food Research Institute, told the Ghana News Agency that the socio- economic survey of 334 vendors and a mini census indicated that street-vended foods made an important contribution to the economy of Accra.

The street foods sector employs more than 60,000 people with an estimated annual turnover of about 100 million dollars and a profit of 24 million dollars, he said.

But Dr Johnson also stressed the health dangers of street foods. He said that most vended foods like waakye, fufu, and salads contained metals, pesticides, microorganisms and mycotoxins that were harmful to the body and could cause behavioural problems and learning difficulties in children.

"I am not against the sale of vended foods but my problem is the way they are being handled," he said.

Some cautious Ghanaians have also, for fear of contracting gastro-enteritis; cholera, dysentery and other food borne illnesses have vowed not to eat from food vendors when they go out. They prefer to remain hungry till they get home.

A visit by this writer to some famous markets in Accra like Agbobloshie, Makola, and Kaneshie revealed poor sanitation and poor handling.

Fresh vegetables were seen displayed on torn and dirty sacks, broken tables propped with stones and at the mercy of the weather. This practice causes leafy vegetables to wilt, fruits to shrivel, eggs to age and root crops and plantain to rot.

All these lead to deterioration in food quality and contamination with microorganisms and worms. The same conditions affect fresh meat and fish distributed and sold to the public. May be the byelaw of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly that all animals should be slaughtered at the Abattoir might help to save the situation.

Concerned about the situation, the Food and Drugs Board (FDB) organised a series of awareness programmes on food safety involving all stakeholders including consumers.

Mr Kwamina Van Ess, Deputy Executive Director of the FDB, said the outfit was collating information on the volume of "check-check" operators so as to audit and inspect them to ensure that they obeyed the rules and regulations. Consumers should be mindful of where they buy their food. They should look at the appearance of food sellers and check whether they had licence or medical certificate and if surroundings were neat and very hygienic.

Mr Van Ess suggested that parents especially mothers should cook in the house to prevent situations whereby money will be given to children to buy food from the wayside. "This will really help to reduce incidence of food poisoning and other illnesses associated with wayside food."

Unfortunately, many infants do not survive under these circumstances. Those who do may suffer from stunted physical and mental development, never reaching their full functional potential in society. There is no doubt that food is needed to keep the body and soul together, it is essential that food eaten is of good quality and safe for satisfactory nutrition and health of consumers.

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