Very recently, I suffered a series of recurring stomach issues. More than twice, I found myself going to the hospital only to be told it was maybe this or maybe that.
This was until the feather that broke the camel’s back hit me and I was received at the hospital on a gurney and hooked to fluids due to severe dehydration and intense stomach pains.
After a series of tests and vials of blood leaving my already weak veins, my doctor decided to treat me on a hunch.
What initially began as a minor upset tummy was later discovered to be a serious case of overgrown intestinal worms.
If you take a walk around wherever you reside, you are bound to find food outlets and vendors at almost every turn.
If you reside in Dar and many African cities, you are definitely accustomed to street foods and food vendors coming at you from all directions.
Economy is tough and many have ventured into different activities to make the buck. Food vendors on the streets make some of the most amazing food and snacks.
In Tanzania, we have everything from fast food restaurants to by-the-road chips and chicken and our much loved mama ntilies.
After my health scare, I did the one thing that many of us comfortably and blissfully overlook. I began to observe and question the severity of food hygiene in our societies and just how complacent we have become to it.
Early in the morning, women and men alike are seen on the streets buying all sorts of bites to have with their morning tea, in homes and offices alike. The food stand that sells maandazi, chapatti, mihogo and more is close to a busy road.
The woman or man making these bites is multitasking between making and fulfilling these multiple orders, collecting money from already filled orders, adding coal or wood to the fire and attempting to clean whatever dishes are suddenly freed up.
The notes of money they receive are wrinkled and lost in colour. Along comes a bus and the conductor or driver calls her to the window to give him some bites too, which she does happily and upon collecting the cash from him, proceeds to tuck it into her bra and fixes her once-up-a-time green kitenge that is now a colour not on the colour spectrum.
During lunch, again we order fries and chicken or beef skewers and our local kachumbari. The glass container in which these foods are stored is cleaned once a day and not as thoroughly as you would hope and chips go in and chips go out. Oil comes in and so do the raw tomatoes, onions and carrots that accompany your fries.
There possibly, is a trench with still, filthy smelling water nearby that we all conveniently cannot smell or be bothered by. Others like me, have kidded ourselves into that belief that if I cannot see how it is prepared, it will not really affect me.
This however does not end here. Recently I went to a certain cafeteria to buy myself a drink. As I waited to be served, a waitress came by, having collected dishes from satisfied customers, goes with a bowl of leftover vegetables and puts them back in the serving dish with the untouched food. I was horrified to say the least.
How wrong have I been? When did we get so complacent about what goes into our bodies? Why did we allow ourselves and our society to get to this point? Should food service providers be held to a certain standard for food hygiene? Should there be regulating authorities for this?
When I began researching and asking questions, I learnt that there are countries in the world that take food security very seriously that restaurants and other food vendors of all capacity are graded according to the hygienic standards of their work spaces, storage places, staff members and even the chain that a meal passes through to get to the consumer.
What exactly is food hygiene?
According to Chef Hazel Chiyungi, food hygiene covers the entire process of preparation of the food to its consumption but does not only cover the food, surfaces and utensil, it also covers the chef and any individual who may come into contact with the food.
“As chefs we have to adhere to high hygiene standards not just with the environment we are preparing the food in but also personal hygiene because contamination can happen at any stage so we have to lessen the chances of serving contaminated food as much as possible. In a professional kitchen we do not have windows but have proper ventilation, the exclusion of windows is to keep pests such as flies out and other insects that may land in the food,” says Hazel.
We must keep our bodies clean, free from strong odours that are unpleasant. Keep hair tidy and not loose to avoid biological contamination such as hair.
Keep nails short to avoid collecting dirt in our nails and then touch food. No make up to avoid chemical contamination that may drop into the food due to high temperatures that may cause make up to melt.
In terms of the environment there are many factors that we have to consider. Such as cross contamination which is the process of transmitting bacteria between different foods.
For example using the same board to cut vegetables and raw meat is not advised or putting cooked food on a board meant for raw food, such little tasks can lead to food poisoning if one is not strict. Different bacteria cause different types of food poisoning from mild to severe.
“Another factor would be to keep the environment you’re working on clean at all times. When you finish one task, disinfect and clean before you start another. This helps lessen the dangers of food contamination. As well as having food stored at the correct temperatures that lessens the spread and multiplication of bacteria. Never put food “naked” in the freezer for instance to avoid spores forming some which are quite difficult to kill even as you cook your food,” she explains.
Safe and nutritious food is paramount to a healthy lifestyle. Food-borne pathogens can, however, lead to short term infections like acute gastroenteritis or even more severe and debilitating conditions like meningitis.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 600 million, almost 1 in 10 people in the world, fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year.
Although restaurant kitchens should be subject to quality control assessments from government officials, street vendors are mostly not held against such evaluation.
This then leaves the general public at the mercy of the vendor to ensure the cleanliness and safety of the food produced.
“I was a victim of Listeriosis in 2017, when there was an outbreak in South Africa, where I reside. This led to a five day admission in hospital where I received antibiotics and intravenous rehydration failure to which I may have lost my life,” says Dr Sheila Nyandiko.
“Campylobacter, Salmonella and Escherichia coli are among the most common food-borne pathogens that affect millions every year around the globe. They can lead to acute gastroenteritis symptoms being nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain,” she says.
“Listeria can lead to miscarriage in pregnant women. Profuse watery diarrhoea from vibrio cholerae can cause dehydration which can lead to death. Simple things like using different surfaces for meat and vegetable preparation may then not necessarily be adhered to and this may have negative health impact.”
Why the complacency?
Consumers who then purchase the food may then ingest the food without washing their hands which is an added risk; are left to the mercy of their own immune systems to clear any pathogens.
The gold standard would then be to prepare your own food at home but in cases where, like myself, appetite drives you and you are drawn to that mahindi choma, samosa or mandazi on the streets, it is important that you wash your hands before you eat the food, even money can contain pathogens so after the transaction it is important that you wash your hands before touching your food or better still, eat the food in its covering if possible.
“I think what primarily drives people to street food is simply hunger, they don’t consider the risks involved when they buy food from the streets such as the conditions it was prepared in, if ingredients were fresh and at their best. Just to kill the pang of hunger they’ll grab a bite. Yet that wouldn’t be wise considering food poisoning can be life threatening if we are cautious with our choices,” says Chef Hazel.
On the other hand, vendors need to be educated on food safety to an extent so that even if it is street food they comply with regulatory policies about the standard of hygiene they must have to be able to sell their food. It’s certainly something that can be controlled with the right measures in place.
It would also help to have a regulatory body that ensures the standards of hygiene and food prep are met.