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16.11.2005 Health

What am I eating?

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A GNA Feature by Benjamin Mensah

Accra, Nov 15, GNA- The air is good. The fragrance and sweet aroma titillate the palate. Mouths are watering. Food is ready! But, when work demands are very heavy and schedules demand leaving homes early, many workers take breakfast outside home.

They cannot afford the time to prepare their own breakfast, for they will be late for work, and in turn incur the wrath of their bosses. The only avenue then for breakfast, lunch, brunch and supper, in some cases for the Ghanaian worker, commuter, traveller or a bachelor is to rely on cooked food from eateries and food joints.

It is, therefore, not uncommon to see hordes of people having their meals outside their homes. And, the looks on their faces show that they are enjoying their meals but there is an avoidable risk.

How secured is the food? Is it free from contamination? Good quality food should be nutritious, hygienically packaged and attractively presented, available in sufficient quantities all year round and located at the appropriate places at affordable prices. However, recent reports of cholera outbreak in parts of the country raise concerns on food safety and the patronage of street foods. Bags of cassava dough and other food items are dumped on the ground for sale to the public. Fresh meat, fish and perishables are sold at the normal ambient temperature contrary to recommended practices. Apart from the Accra Abattoir, located at the outskirts rather than in the centre of Accra, hygienic slaughtering points are virtually non-existent in the Metropolis and the modes of transporting or singeing the meat leave much to be desired.

A study by the International Water Management Institutes in 2002 that looked into the levels of food contamination by faecal micro-organisms in Accra, Kumasi and Tamale found that 180 samples of cabbage, lettuce and spring onions bought from markets and special vegetable stands contained at least 4,000 faecal coliform. This raises a serious concern about the quality of water used in irrigating farmlands and vegetable gardens and the misapplication of chemicals.

Another study conducted by the Food Research Institute on the state of microbiological contamination of support infrastructure in kitchens and dining halls of selected food service establishments in the Accra Metropolis revealed high counts of micro-organisms.

Prof. Agyeman Badu Akosa, Director-General of the Ghana Health Service (GHS), at the beginning of the month of November 2005, told a press conference in Accra that a study among "chop bar" operatives in particular showed that 20 per cent of the cooks had fungal hand and nail infection.

Eight per cent to 11 per cent had intestinal worm infestation, while 10 per cent were also diagnosed as carriers of typhoid. Food handlers with infections and infestations might spread them as a result of poor hygienic practices such as failure to wash hands with soap after attending nature's call.

Infections and infestations might also spread by coughing or sneezing in food preparation areas, nose picking, winnowing of peeled groundnuts by blowing.

Prof. Akosa said the presence of large numbers of coliform in processed food was an indicator of faecal contamination after processing or cooking and that some strains might cause food poisoning via production of enterotoxins.

Bacteria in food are a public health hazard.

Pesticide contamination of food might occur due to inappropriate pesticide use. The major pattern of misuse relate to non-observance of re-entry intervals before harvesting of sprayed crops and use of highly toxic pesticides on food.

Several reports have indicated that farmers in tomato growing areas sprayed their tomatoes on the day of purchase presumably to ensure that pests do not attack them before harvest.

The Director General noted that growing food in the vicinity of crops for which pesticides were used was dangerous for the farmer and also posed a potential risk.

There is a high risk of death from the use of insecticides in vegetable production and food storage.

Contamination of nuts and grains by moulds, one type of which is aflatoxin, constituted another source of chemical contamination of food. Aflatoxin occurs mostly under poor storage conditions characterized by high humidity and high temperatures. Contamination might also occur at pre-harvest and during transportation. It might be passed on from animals feeding on contaminated feed to humans.

Aflatoxins are not destroyed by heat and hence cooking does not render the food harmless. "This is a major public health risk for liver cancer," the Director General said.

Another area of concern is through the intentional use of chemicals and additives, a major problem with market women at the various markets and other food vendors within the Accra Metropolis. Measures to address the problem, therefore, must be the combined effort of all sectors as well as changes in attitudes and practices of individuals.

Interventions should occur from farm, through the distribution chain to the table and should impact on inputs, farm processes, handling in the market and at the level of processing industry and the household. It is better to ensure food safety than eating irresponsibly to rely on drugs to treat food related diseases.

Is it not time to question the old Akan adage: "Opintinn biara ye omim', meaning, "It is enough just to fill the belly?" One wonders if the Accra Metropolitan Directorate of Agriculture has lived up its promise in 2004 to strengthen its market extension by educating traders and consumers alike on the hazards on the status associated with handling food, display and sales of food and food ingredients in 2005.

The warning signs are clear. Better to ensure food safety for good health than further saddle the nation with avoidable health risks. Poor sanitary practices in many homes and the major cities of the country are the prime causes of the high incidence of diarrhoeal diseases, cholera, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, food poisoning and other infections of the gut.

Sanitation is a way of life. It is the quality of living that is expressed in the clean home, the clean farm, the clean business and industry, the clean neighbourhood and community.

Being a way of life, sanitation must come within the people; it is nourished by knowledge and grows as an obligation and as an ideal in human relations.

So the aromatic air may be captivating, but one must ask: "What am I really eating?" Before taking the first morsel or gulp to avoid eating faeces, poison or any other contaminant.