Grabbing a club sandwich in a very popular and well-patronized restaurant on the Spintex road, Accra was a great idea after a hard day’s work at a client’s organization. I took a bite and as I worked on the food, started chewing on some hard objects. I thought to myself, who would prepare sandwiches that would contain chicken bones? I began to pull these objects out and guess what? I had been chewing on pieces of toothpick! I pulled the three pieces out, inspected the other half of the club sandwich at least externally before taking a fresh bite and missed a second toothpick narrowly, as its sharp dressing-soaked head surfaced. I was in shock as I placed it back into the packaging and took photos. I had escaped what would have been two nasty physical assaults in a few minutes!
Food Safety Hazard
A food safety hazard is a biological, chemical or physical property that may cause a food to be adulterated or otherwise unsafe for human consumption.
A biological hazard is an agent in food with potential to cause human illness or it can be referred to as microbial contaminants, microorganisms or pathogens. It is the most significant hazard in our food. This hazard involves mainly disease-causing microorganisms, certain plants and fish that carry toxins (poisonous) and living organisms, implying strong growth, no growth or death depending on the intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Intrinsic factors are mainly related to the structure and composition of the foodstuff, while extrinsic factors are related to some environmental parameters that affect the food or the food matrix (The nutrient and non-nutrient components of foods and their molecular relationships). It should be noted that, by design, food processors include some intrinsic factors depending on the type of food category.
Biological hazards pose the greatest public health threat at the pre-harvest stage since the chemical and physical hazards do not reproduce and increase in the food and in the environment with time, as do microbiological hazards.
Chemical hazards include agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides, insecticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and other animal drugs, cleaning residues, naturally occurring toxins, food additives, allergens, and toxic chemicals from industrial processes that can enter the food chain directly during processing or indirectly through plants and animals.
Physical hazards occur when a foreign object gets into food accidentally, or natural objects are left in food. Physical hazards can get into food by contamination or poor procedure practices throughout the food chain. Physical contaminants include wood splinters, dirt, hair, nail polish flakes, insects, broken glass, nails, staples, plastic fragments, bones, or bits of packaging.
Foreign objects are the most obvious evidence of a contaminated product and are therefore most likely to be reported by production or by consumer complaints. They are also less likely than chemical or biological contaminants to affect large numbers of people, but their presence can be very dangerous to the consumer.
Addition of Physical Hazards by Design
The focus of this article is on the physical hazards of food, especially those deliberately added to food as per the design. Remember that, some physical hazards come with the food by means of the traditional mode of harvesting, transportation, storage and even preparation. Hence fish can be prepared as boneless fish, but there is a possibility of coming across a few bones at table. Hair strands, stones in our beans and Waakye are examples. Other physical hazards are deliberately added to food to either help form a structure or help with packaging. For instance, barbeques, club sandwiches and the use of staple pins to seal off food products such as plantain chips and its ‘relatives’, processed corn flour, tom brown and other products sold in supermarkets and even the open market. The inclusion of these physical hazards in processed or prepared food poses huge food safety concerns. Barbeques could be an exception since the sharp stick employed in its preparation is so visible to the eye and firmly gripped when eating. Same cannot be said of the other examples given above.
These physical hazards deliberately added to food are mainly due to a lack of research and development into food products, lack of understanding of food hazards and their control, no or poor understanding of Hazard Analysis (HA) and lack of formulation review. Although these physical hazards are included for ‘good’ purposes, a proper hazard analysis would have thrown out how it should be done to prevent consumers from endangering their health when they decide to indulge themselves. An example of this is the toothpick used to hold the slices of bread and the fillings together in the case of sandwiches. The appropriate sticks to use are skewers, a cocktail stick, or the tooth picks with one pointed end (sandwich picks), where the pointed end is in the sandwich and the flat end visibly showing on top above the sandwich.
In order to avoid any toothpick from getting deeper in the sandwich, this can be designed out as done by some restaurants. They completely do away with the stick and the sandwich still holds together in one piece.
In the development process of every food product, it is important to keep two things in mind. Design out any intrinsic hazard and prevent the extrinsic hazards from occurring by putting in place controls through a risk assessment process. In the case of club sandwich, fast food operators could design out the toothpick as an integral part of the food. The question is; does toothpicks make club sandwiches any delicious than they are? The tip of the toothpick should normally stick out for consumers to notice so they don’t choke on it, but who checks that this happens? In my case the toothpick was submerged in the sandwich and hence not visible, so I bit through the sandwich thinking it came without one.
Food processors using staple pins to seal off ready to eat foods like bagged plantain chips, peanuts, cashew nuts, potato chips and other such foods should desist from the practice, since there is real danger of swallowing these pins especially among children and the blind. Just as the few have done, there are several potable sealing machines that can do the same job, even in a more hygienic manner.
The same recommendation goes for all food processors who are deliberately adding physical hazards to their products for all kinds of ‘genuine’ reasons. I will call on the Food and Drugs Authority to put their microscopes on the highest magnification on this particular issue. If food processors will not force themselves to comply, they must be forced to comply.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.