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06.04.2006 Health

How safe are our foods?

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A GNA feature by Christabel Addo

Accra, April 6, GNA - An ancient Ghanaian adage has it that "one's stomach must be full before he or she could blow a trumpet," but should the stomach be filled with any thing one lays hands on just to satisfy the stomach's request?

Food, though good for the general upkeep and growth of the human body, it is the same food that brings about the numerous diseases and complications, if they are not hygienically handled or treated well from the farm or they are eaten in wrong quantities.

With the proliferation of restaurants, wayside food vending popularly known as "check check" and other forms of food production, care must be taken as to which one of these one patronizes.

Most of such foods are prepared with unwholesome vegetables as well as expired ingredients and sold in very unhygienic environments and without any certification from the appropriate authorities. Statistics from the Ghana Health Services (GHS) indicates that food borne diseases remain high among the causatives of high morbidity and mortality in the country.

A recent study conducted in Ghana also estimated that about 6.8 per cent of the adult population aged 25 years and above, the most productive age group have diabetes.

Recent global reports have also shown that more than 300 million people are currently at risk of developing diabetes due to dietary changes, the rapid cultural and social changes, ageing populations, increasing urbanisation, reduced physical activities and other unhealthy lifestyles and behavioural patterns.

Development of taste for western food

As a matter of fact, Ghanaians have adopted and developed tastes for various western foods, and sometimes feel shy to associate themselves with some local Ghanaian dishes like komtomire or bitter leaf, which has high nutritive values.

Most would prefer chicken, to having dried fish from the Volta Lake, while most rich men of today would often ply along the Accra-Cape Coast road for bush meat.

At the celebrations of the World Diabetes Day last year, Prof. Agyemang-Badu Akosa, Director-General of the Ghana Health Services (GHS), gave a wake-up call to the public and policy makers on the socio-economic implications of diabetes in the country.

Prof. Akosa noted that with Ghana's current prevalence rate of 6.3 per cent, the need to prioritise research into the causes, treatment and maintenance of the disease to prevent complication was paramount. He linked the increased in diabetic cases to the increasing prevalence of obesity due to poor dietary practices and the food content, and said recent WHO and the International Obesity Taskforce's reports have attested to the high rise in body mass of most people, especially women. He cautioned that diabetes, which is a serious chronic and a potential life-threatening disease, affects persons of all ages and is currently the leading cause of about 44 per cent of all foot amputations at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital.

"The disease has also been identified as the leading cause of blindness and visual disability and the cost of treatment is very high," he said.

Preparing food in unhygienic conditions Various speakers including the Minister of Health, Major Courage Quashigah (rtd) have also called for self-discipline as a hallmark, to ensure sanity and environmental cleanliness for quality health. The Health Minister said current lifestyles of the majority of Ghanaians indicated a total breakdown of discipline, resulting in all forms of negative practices leading to epidemics like cholera. Speaking at an emergency inter-sectoral meeting at the latter part of 2005, on the cholera situation of the country Major Quashiegah said; "discipline has not been a choice that people make, therefore, they do things any how and indiscriminately litter around".

He noted that with the level of advancement of the country, cholera should have been a thing of the past, "but filth is engulfing us, resulting in this epidemic." He called for the reintroduction of sanitary inspectors to go from house to house to ensure that there was an attitudinal change among the population.

Though the state of the environment is a great contributory factor to food safety, security and good health, as all food crops are grown and handled in such environment most people do not pay much attention to where the food they eat comes from or how they are prepared. It is a heartbreaking to witness how foods are prepared for commercial consumption in some areas of Accra including the popular "Chop Bars" inside the Makola market.

Not only are such environments filthy, but also both cooks and the water used in cooking these dishes and for washing plates are great health hazards.

Mr. Clement Eledi, Deputy Minister, Food and Agriculture, at a workshop on food safety and market access, called on the public to insist on food safety, within the country to help to reduce the high economic consequences of food borne diseases.

He stated that food safety in the country was in a precarious situation and if care was not taken, any epidemic outbreak could be disastrous to many in the country.

He called for an intensified producer and consumer education to create much awareness on the quality of food for both export and local consumption.

The Deputy Minister said government was taking steps to intensify efforts to improve upon food safety by strengthening the capacity of institution such as the Food and Drugs Board and Metropolitan Assemblies to enforce legislation and increase surveillance.

He noted; "though there are numerous legislations governing food production, poor supervision and enforcement of such legislations has been a major setback to achieving food safety within the country. Mr. Eledi urged the public to insist on quality and not quantity, while taking note of expiring dates, ingredients and colouring: "You must be wary of environments where food are prepared and sold, as such foods could easily be contaminated," he advised. "When we talk about food safety, it must be noted that safety begins with the seed, farming practice, storage and processes then to the final preparation of the food crop for consumption. Farmers must be cautious of the use and application of fertilizer and other chemicals, since such chemicals can leave toxic particles that could be harmful.

Mr. Eledi said the Ministry had improved seeds as well as approved chemicals for crop production. "We also have extension officers who offer free technical advice to both crop and animal farmers," he added.

He called on farmers to utilize such services to ensure quality production that would compete favourably with other goods on the global market.

Standardising food quality Mr Anatolio Ndong Mba, FAO Representative in Ghana, stated that the WHO was working together with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to strengthen the capacity of the National Codex Committee, to undertake the challenges posed, from production to final consumption.

Mr Mba explained that the FAO and WHO created the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) in 1963, to develop food standards, texts and other related documents such as the codes of practice under the joint FAO/WHO World Food Standard Programme.

The CAC is committed to protecting the health of consumers, promoting fair food trade and coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international, governmental and nongovernmental organisations.

He said intensified consumer education was the only immediate solution to the current state of food safety situation in the country and urged all the enforcement agencies to intensify their effort to clump down those who violated the legislation.

Mr. Mba, said the Codex Alimentarius Commission standards were valuable basis for the development of standards by new trading blocks adding that the WFP, also uses Codex standards as a reference in specifying contracts for food aid.

"In practice, it is difficult for many countries to accept Codex standards in the statutory sense due to differing legal formats, varying administrative and political systems and sometimes national attitudes as well as the concept of sovereign rights," he said. Mr Mba, however, said despite these difficulties the process of harmonization was gaining impetus by virtue of a strong international desire to facilitate trade.

"The current membership of the Codex Alimentarius Commission has risen from 30 to more than 160 countries," he said. Should Ghana allow the current global technological advancement in all aspects of human life, including health, education, socio-economic advancement and technology to escape untapped? It is, therefore, important to eat to live and not live to eat by accepting any form of food, no matter where it comes from.

Ghanaians must change in their mindset and accept what they have to help to solve the numerous health problems.