You may be at risk of contracting potentially fatal food poisoning from unhygienic street food, is the latest health warning. Not only that, the risk may even be highest in more expensive areas, according to scientists at the University of Ghana.
Of 30 khebab samples taken from popular spots in three Accra neighbourhoods, specimens recorded in Osu and Accra Central contained far higher levels of dangerous pathogenic bacteria than khebabs tested from the poorer and notoriously squalid Nima district.
Samples from Osu had the highest mean average bacteria counts of the three districts – 5.02 colony forming units per gram of khebab, compared to 4.80 in Nima and 4.08 in Accra Central.
The research was led by Daleth Agbodaze, Senior Research Fellow at the Bacteriology Department of the Noguchi Memorial Centre for Medical Research (Legon), and published in the Ghana Medical Journal, June 2005.
What makes khebabs particularly dangerous are the many variables that can't be known for certain, Agbodaze said in an interview with The Statesman. It all depends upon where the meat is slaughtered, how it is slaughtered, the health of the animal before it was slaughtered, how the meat is transported, the length of time and condition in which it waits before it is sliced, how thinly it is sliced, how clean the hands and tools and environment of the person slicing, whether the person is sick and carrying infectious bacteria when handling and cooking and serving the meat, how long it is cooked, how long it is stored before you eat it, and the cleanliness of the plates on which it is served when you eat it.
Not all khebabs are unsafe, he qualifies, but the environment in which the food is stored and prepared makes all the difference between a safe or potentially lethal mouthful.
And there is little evidence that vendors are doing enough to ensure this safe environment. Research conducted by The Statesman suggests that many khebab sellers do very little to maintain sanitary practices in their own work or to reduce the risk of contamination, and pay little attention to health and safety standards. Speed is too often given precedence over safety – with undercooked meat resulting in diarrhoea, severe stomach pains, high fever, dizziness, vomiting, or headaches.
Other dangerous practices include the re-heating of meat which has already been cooked – vendors consulted by The Statesman revealed that meat is usually part-cooked so that it can be hastily prepared for customers in a hurry. Often this meat has been sitting in the sun for hours before it is finally finished off and consumed, making it an ideal breeding ground for dangerous bacteria such as e-coli.
The lower incidence of dangerous bacteria in Nima khebabs may be a result of the higher turn-over of food in the busy neighbourhood – with less meat left out for long periods of time, or stored and re-heated to use the next day, bacteria multiplying by the minute. Spices used in Nima may also carry antiseptic and antibacterial qualities unbeknownst to the upper-class spots in Accra Central or in Osu, the scientists suggest.
Vendors questioned by The Statesman in Osu did not admit to re-heating left-over khebabs from the day before, although they conceded that the practice is not uncommon amongst other sellers. Agbodaze explained how this practice can lead to the rapid reproduction of bacteria: Bacillus cereus can kill us by growing overnight in cooked food, even in the fridge.
So don't eat leftover foods – full stop, he advised. If you suspect a khebab vendor of sneaking yesterday's khebabs in with the fresh ones, either because the turnover of his customers is usually slow or yesterday the bad weather kept away trade, then don't frequent that eating place.
Another common cause of food poisoning is from illness of food vendors themselves, according to the scientist. Faecal bacteria can get passed on to you if the food has been handled by someone who is themselves sick with diarrhoea. It is worth giving some thought to how your vendor manages when he is sick: does he have a helper take over until his bout of diarrhoea is over? Agbodaze said that people also put themselves at risk through their careless eating habits, particularly when on the run, and that khebab vendors themselves are not solely to blame. He pointed out how someone who is hungry and is preparing to board a long-haul public vehicle can be particularly undiscerning, which could account for the high incidence of food poisoning cases attributed to tro-tro station vendors. Anticipating hours without an opportunity to eat, people will commonly grab a khebab at the nearby stand and urge the vendor to prepare it quickly — without thinking whether the inadequately cooked meat is going to result in illness. Often the resultant food poisoning will require medication to cure, or in the worst cases can even lead to death.
Although their survey was specific to khebab meat across the capital, the problem of poor storage, preparation and hygiene affects fast food vendors more widely: The Daily Graphic (Saturday September 17) reported five deaths from food poisoning due to seemingly innocent rice balls served at a funeral—but the rice balls had been cooked and kept overnight before they were served.
Agbodaze believes that lack of education is one of the major explanations for the proliferation of food poisoning cases resulting from poorly prepared street food. He announced to The Statesman his intention to amass and mobilise a group of key vendors in Accra for health and hygiene training, which will be undertaken at his own expense. See The Statesman on Monday for advice on how to eat a safe khebab