Industry & Consumer Information: The cost of food poisoning incidents— the Marwako case and lessons to be learnt (II)

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“We visited some of our customers at the hospital, and with those who were discharged, we visited them at home. We assisted some of them with their hospital bills. The main thing started on Saturday and Sunday evening. We have accepted everything, and we have apologised to the victims.” The above statement is attributable to Mohammed Amin Lamptey, the Public Relations Officer of Marwako.

Although an apology is welcome, it always comes a little too late when the harm has already been caused. Food poisoning has far-reaching consequences on a food business. This article will deal with a few of them with the view to getting actors in the space to take precautionary measures to avert such unfortunate situations.

Consumer agitation

The first impact on a business in the situation Marwako finds itself is consumer dissatisfaction, which can be demonstrated in different forms. Food poisoning is not a quality incident but a consumer safety incident. Food poisoning may result in serious illness leading to hospitalization and, in some cases, death. This is the more reason consumers become irritated and will go far in getting the business owner to take responsibility in ways which could collapse the business. Victims may decide on law suits although the regulator may consider hefty fines for such breach of food safety protocols.

Closing of business operations

It is the responsibility of regulatory authorities to establish standards and enforce such standards. In light of this, the Ghana Standards Authority has the primary responsibility of establishing standards on food quality and safety. The enforcement aspect of this lies in the bosom of the Food and Drugs Authority to enforce these laws.

The municipal authorities share the responsibility of ensuring street foods are prepared and sold in a hygienic environment. One key activity of the FDA in a case of food poisoning outbreak is to immediately close the facility for investigations to begin. The FDA, in the Marwako case, closed three branches. This means loss of business for as long as the business remains closed down.

Time and cost of decontamination

Investigations by regulatory agencies may look at an array of issues in relation to the food poisoning outbreak. If the case has to do with hygiene and overall environmental inappropriateness, the time to completely decontaminate depends on the level of deterioration.

This may take a long time which means loss of business. There is also the issue of cost. The purchasing of the right detergents and disinfectants, and even fumigants bring a lot of cost in its wake. In cases such as this, professional cleaning service providers may have to be engaged, and depending on the number of days to be used it can cost a huge amount of money.

Loss of key personnel

While the company is locked up, other competitors may poach your key skilled labour – in this case chefs, cooks, etc. The company loses a great deal, especially if these are staff trained from the company’s finances. Building the capacity of employees is cost intensive, and the last thing any company would like is to lose their choice men for the job.

The company may also lose a lot of money for the salaries of permanent employees. Irrespective of the period of the shutdown, the company is expected to pay all permanent employees. In a worst-case scenario where the company is crippled beyond survival, all these employees would have to be given packages which still puts pressure on shareholders.

Reducing the risk of food poisoning

It is important for players in the food and hospitality industries to establish ways to prevent or reduce food poisoning incidents. There are several well-established systems that can help companies prevent or reduce the risk of food poisoning in establishments.

First, the manual for handling any task at all is key for the successful implementation of that task: Standards! Food standards serve as a compass that helps food establishments navigate the food production space. The most common are Codex Alimentarius General Principles of Food Hygiene.

This is a guidance document that throws light on how to manufacture food under hygienic conditions along the value chain. ISO 22000 Food Safety Management Systems also provide a broader guidance for the management of food safety, with the aim of providing food that is safe and wholesome for consumers.

The set of HACCP principles is embedded in the Food Safety Management System, and it is a helpful tool which provides guidance in the identification, evaluation and control of hazards which are significant for food safety. The Public Health Act (2012) Act 851 also provides some appreciable guidance for the food industry. It is recommended that food owners abreast themselves with the above standards to guide them in the provision of food services.

Second is capacity building for employees working in food establishments. Food, unlike a gun, is embraced by everyone; yet food can be more dangerous than a gun for the fact that it attracts the consumer, and can kill due to contamination of all kinds – including those of a microbiological nature. Players must make it a point to employ at least two professionals in the field of food safety and quality to augment the staff. Internal and external training must be given to employees to always upgrade their knowledge on food safety, and how to prevent contamination of food and the food environment.

Last but not least, it is recommended that a food safety culture be established in every food establishment. This establishes food safety as a language of choice across the organisation. A food safety culture will encompass top management, front line managers, processors, cooks, packing staff, cleaners and food dispatch teams. Regular internal audits of the facility, and occasional external audits must be given priority. Beyond audits, corrective and preventive actions must be followed through until gaps are effectively closed.

Conclusion

The food incident at Marwako should serve as a wake-up call for all players in the hospitality industry and by extension, food processing companies. Akin to a fire incident in a neighbour’s property, you will use the opportunity to check whether you are practising good fire safety habits and whether all fire extinguishers are in good condition and filled.

All catering establishments must have an audit of their premises and their food safety practices in order to close gaps which exist presently. Guns are known to kill, and food must not be placed in that same category; otherwise the population will be at risk of ‘extinction’ because we all need safe and quality food to thrive.

Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Founder & Lead Consultant, QA CONSULT (Consultants and Trainers in Quality Assurance, Health & Safety, Environmental Management Systems, Manufacturing Excellence and Food Safety). He is also a consumer safety advocate and helps businesses with Regulatory Affairs. He can be reached on +233209996002, email: [email protected]; [email protected]  

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