“The FDA has taken notice of complaints from the public about the suspected food poisoning at the East Legon branch of Marwako Restaurant. We have closed down the restaurant, and together with other relevant agencies, started investigations,” the FDA tweeted on their official twitter handle on May 12, 2022.
In what seems to be a chilling story narrated by some victims of the said suspected food poisoning incident, many people who patronise restaurants and eateries have taken to social media to express grave concerns. A tweet by one norvi nyo reads: “Hmm, I thought we were alone. Saturday, @Marwakofastfood East Legon gave me and my family the worst food poisoning ever! A pain I cannot explain. Myself, my husband, my 5-year old & 20 months old boys. I feel like I can lose my boys. I won’t even say we are recovering because……”
Sad to say that food safety has not been a topical issue for ages in Ghana. People die from food poisoning, the media publishes the news for the information of the citizenry; but unlike political issues, it painfully goes unnoticed and no serious discussions are held to find solutions to this menace.
Food poisoning is an acute illness brought on by the consumption of contaminated food with symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and in worse cases prostration and paralysis. Food poisoning can be attributed to either microbial contamination or chemical contamination.
In some instances, severe injury may occur as a result of physical contaminants such as glass splinters, stones, pieces of wood etc. The effects of food poisoning on any economy cannot go unnoticed. The following statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) should be an eye opener to stakeholders in the food industry, including government.
- An estimated 600million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33million healthy life years (DALYs).
- US$110billion is lost each year in productivity and medical expenses resulting from unsafe food in low and middle-income countries.
- Children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year.
- Diarrhoeal diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing 550million people to fall ill and 230,000 deaths every year.
- Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick.
- Foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems, and harming national economies, tourism and trade.
If the above statistics is anything to go by, key stakeholders in the food industry must be having regular dialogues on actions to prevent such needless loss of lives. In Ghana, government, through the Ghana Standards Authority and Food and Drugs Authority, is responsible for establishing standards and enforcing same respectively. The Public Health Act (2012), Act 851 has several articles which deal with food that is commercially prepared for sale to consumers. The challenge, however, has been enforcement of the law.
The FDA is overwhelmed with the sheer number of restaurants springing up everywhere in the country. The municipal assemblies have the primary responsibility of enforcing food safety laws in the various municipalities, especially among players in the informal sector. Most recently, the FDA has joined forces with these municipal assemblies in their enforcement drive.
This is a good initiative, but more has to be done in terms of capacity building, education and the employment of technology in the preparation and sale of food on a commercial scale. There are several consultants in the private sector who can be engaged to support these government institutions to strengthen the arms of food safety in the country.
Sources of food contamination
The growth, spread and subsequent contamination of food by pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms stems from many factors. The classical definition of food hygiene is: all measures necessary to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of food at all stages from receipt of raw materials to sale to the consumer.
Therefore, any practice that jeopardises the safety of raw materials purchased from our markets, through storage, preparation, hot-holding or cold storage and sale creates an environment for pathogenic organisms to thrive, grow and bring about food poisoning.
Sources of contamination include poor personal hygiene practices from food handlers, inadequate cleaning and disinfection of raw materials and utensils, pests due to poor pest control, dirty kitchens and poor disposal practices of garbage. The following are a few tips to help food establishments maintain food safety in a more sustainable manner.
Good personal hygiene practices
There is no need satisfying customers in terms of time and putting safety of the food only second. All catering staff must observe strict personal and food hygiene to protect customers from going down with foodborne illnesses. Hands must be washed more frequently during the preparation and processing of food and juices. There should be no talking, chewing or singing during food preparation and serving.
This behaviour introduces saliva into the food and the result is heavy microbial contamination. Catering staff must take off all jewellery during cooking to prevent physical hazards, such as finger rings, nose rings, earrings, necklaces, watches and the like entering into food. All catering staff must cover their heads to prevent hair strands from entering into food.
Apart from the hair strands presenting a physical hazard, they also introduce spores of some pathogens trapped in them. Refrigeration and cooking temperatures must be strictly adhered to. Hot food must always be kept above a temperature of 63OC. Food to be served cold like salads must be kept under refrigeration conditions below 5OC. Meat and poultry to be used later must be kept in freezers at a temperature of -18oC.
Precautions for consumers & customers
As a consumer, you are responsible for your own safety. You should look out for restaurants and hotels who practise personal and food hygiene. Of course, you may not know what goes on in the ‘hidden’ kitchens, but you’ll have to open your eyes to the surroundings and those who serve you.
Look out for the following signs once your food is served. Just be informed that most microbes that cause food poisoning do not usually change the taste or the colour of the food much. Spoilage organisms would normally change the look, taste and feel of food. Having said that, there are microorganisms which can cause both spoilage and food poisoning.
Do not eat cooked meat or poultry that still has blood at the core. Immediately reject food with the following characteristics: colour of the food has changed from what it usually is, ropiness, sourness, bitter aftertaste, slimy and has a rather foul smell. These are signs of spoilage. If spoilage sets in, food is unwholesome and must not be consumed. There is also the possibility of food poisoning – bacteria present in the food.
While I keep writing for part II of this article, permit me to end with a favourite quote from Dr. Deming: “Everyone here has a customer. And if he doesn’t know who it is and what constitutes the needs of the customer, and work in the cycle of adjustment to customers’ needs and what he can produce, then he does not understand his job”. Food safety is at the heart of consumption and no amount of tasty food can surpass food that is safe!
Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Executive Director & Lead Consultant, QA CONSULT (Consultants and Trainers in Quality/Safety Management, Manufacturing Excellence and Food Safety). He is also the CEO of GS1 Ghana, providers of barcodes for all categories of products. He can be reached on +233209996002, email: [email protected].
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