It is apparent that modern lifestyles have driven many people, especially the working class, to depend on out-of-home foods. The traffic situation in the cities has not helped the situation much. You are only sure to get to the office on time if you wake up very early and leave home by 5am, especially when your workplace is located in the heart of the city.
Many schoolchildren have to share in this agony by leaving home with their parents. Since it is normally too early to cook, the majority of urban dwellers depend on the hospitality industry for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. Scattered in the cities are hotels, restaurants, eateries, chop bars and other small-scale food sellers.
Many of you reading this article, might have enjoyed food from such places on a number of occasions. It is good to understand food safety in order to make sound choices as to where to purchase food. Your health is very important.
For better understanding, I will take a two-prong approach to defining food safety. Food safety is a combination of providing safe food and the practice of food hygiene. Safe food is food that is free from contamination and will not cause harm, injury or illness when consumed according to its intended use.
Food hygiene includes all measures necessary to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of food at all stages, from receipt of raw materials to sale to the customer. Some of the activities under food hygiene include: protecting food from contamination; discarding unfit or contaminated food; rejecting contaminated food or food from suspect sources; preventing multiplication and destroying organisms.
There are four main types of contamination: namely, microbiological contamination, chemical contamination, physical contamination, and allergen contamination. Microbiological contamination occurs when loads of food pathogens beyond a certain threshold are found in the food environment.
It is good to note that the microbiological activity increases in raw food, and hence raw food like, beef, mutton, vegetables etc. could have high doses of micro-organisms to the point of contamination. That is the reason raw foods must be treated to make them microbiologically sound. Some troublesome pathogens are Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Bacillus cereus. These microorganisms cause food-poisoning, especially when their numbers in the food exceed a certain threshold. There are also spoilage organisms which can contaminate your food, and when spoilage sets in, food is unwholesome to be consumed.
Chemical contamination is one of the most difficult to handle in the kitchen. This may come from pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables, for example, above the acceptable limits. Contamination of raw food can result from cleaning agents, excessive addition of additives in food etc. Physical contamination can be referred to as contamination from contaminants such as stones, wood-splinters, broken glass, sand just to mention a few.
Allergens are also considered as contaminants, especially to those groups of individuals who are allergic to such allergenic products. Some of the common allergens are peanuts, eggs, milk, celery, soya, shrimps, prawns and many other sea-foods. The definition of contamination in relation to food is the occurrence of any objectionable matter in the food or food environment.
It is important to remember that in considering food safety, you should always be thinking about it on the basis of ‘farm to fork’. I will henceforth limit this article to the source of our ingredients and will in the coming weeks highlight food safety breaches along the chain until you are served. We normally sit in posh restaurants and order our food, but hardly do we ask ourselves where the ingredients were purchased from; or maybe we close our eyes to the sources because the majority of us have an idea of where they come from.
There are practitioners in the hospitality industry who are ignorant about the four main contamination groups mentioned above, and therefore get into the cyclical trap of purchasing heavily contaminated ingredients.
Contamination of vegetable salad with Salmonella is very common. I have heard countless numbers of stories about food-poisoning from people who consumed salad. Others have suffered from foodborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, bacillary dysentery etc. The root causes of these diseases are in the open and you cannot miss most of them. We are just not being proactive about them.
Have you ever walked or driven along the very huge gutters we have running across our cities? You must have come across very nicely grown vegetables like cabbages, lettuce as well as spring onions just to mention the key ones. The owners of these farms create mini-dams by placing sandbags into these gutters. This becomes the source of water for watering the vegetables.
Apart from faecal contamination, effluent from hospitals and chemical industries run through these same gutters — contaminating these vegetables with chemical waste. I must also admit that we have vegetables coming from farms where potable water is used, but how do you know the source of vegetables you consume at the table?
Secondly, the handling of farm produce at the various markets leaves much to be desired. Visit any of the major markets across the country. You will more often than not come across food items heaped on the ground…some even run into nearby gutters. This is where most people buy their produce for the various public and even domestic kitchens. Worse still is conditions in the trucks that convey these raw materials from the farms to markets.
Another huge area that presents a challenge is the source of raw meat. There are a few hygienic abattoirs dotted across the country that have professional staff who follow strict hygienic rules in getting us safe meat. There are also private abattoirs, which are in the majority.
Aside from the use of car tyres with its attendant carcinogenic effects, preparation of carcasses for sale literally takes place on the bare ground. The chemical contamination from these tyres and microbial load in such meat is anyone’s guess, but the question is: do you know the source of the meat you ate last?
Transportation of meat from the abattoirs to some hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and meat shops compounds the issue of contamination. I recently came across meat from one of the safest abattoirs being offloaded into a popular supermarket at Osu from the back of a taxi-cab, wrapped in black, torn polythene bags — with flies all over the exposed parts of the meat. The conditions inside the taxi where the meat was stored were very unhygienic to say the least. In the open market, people carry meat on their bare-backs — soaking the meat with sweat: and by the way, sweat is full of Staphylococcus aureus….which is a food pathogen found all over the human body.
While I commend some players in the hospitality industry for embracing training in Food Safety and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), it is sad to note that others are adamant and will give ten reasons why they’re not in the position to invest in catering staff training.
Food poisoning is an acute illness brought on by the consumption of contaminated or poisonous food, usually with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting. The players in the hospitality industry must be aware that training chefs, cooks and food handlers in their establishments is required by law, and every single establishment must have some sort of hazard analysis implemented. Knowledge in food safety is pertinent to the catering staff in understanding the implications of purchasing raw materials from places where contamination is likely to be high, and will push them to look for alternative sources of raw materials.
As a nation, Food Safety must be an issue to be discussed on a daily basis. Last year, many people died from cholera across the country. Have we learnt any lessons? The players in the hospitality industry can propel their businesses to greater heights by providing food that is safe and of good quality. Training their catering staff is key to achieving this. The enforcement agencies, including the FDA and Public Health directorate, must ensure that catering staff go through appropriate training to assure the safety of food in their establishments. Food must not be a weapon; it is to be enjoyed.
Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Executive Director & Lead Consultant/Trainer– QA Consult and can be reached on email@example.com. Tel. +233209996002