Food safety consciousness has become a global phenomenon controlling trade among nations and plays a significant role in national socio-economic infrastructure. In fact, food safety today is among subjects discussed at many international fora in view of its importance for the wellbeing of consumers.
It has also received very extensive media coverage where more often than not, panic situations are created as a result of the poor communication strategies adopted by the media or the media’s inability to communicate food safety risk properly without making food safety issues unnecessarily sensational.
Whilst food safety campaigns are regular features on several media platforms, mostly in advanced economies, little can be said about this in developing countries. The only time food safety is discussed as a topical issue in the media is when a press statement is released by a food control agency or an outbreak of a food related disease leading to hospitalization or deaths. Food safety consciousness is therefore low, if not absent, among consumers in these developing countries including Ghana.
The recent outbreak of cholera in some regions in Ghana attests to this fact. In fact, cholera infection occurs via faecal -oral route and any infection, therefore is an indication of the ingestion of food contaminated with faecal matter. It is obvious that food safety campaigns or sensitizations are heightened only when such occurrences are reported as was seen in the recent past when several deaths occurred in Accra alone through the cholera outbreak.
In spite of the reported hospitalizations and deaths, there was no evidence of people changing their eating habits and hygiene practices; people are still eating with unwashed hands and people do not wash their hands after visiting the toilet. In fact, a visit to some selected state institutions and public facilities and media houses revealed rather poor sanitation conditions where restrooms were poorly cleaned and handwashing facilities have no soap and materials to wipe hands after use of these restrooms.
Sustained food safety and hygiene sensitization campaigns are therefore necessary to promote this consciousness among consumers.
An emerging food handling practice that further depicts this low food safety consciousness among consumers is the high patronage of packed meals ( fried chicken, rice with salad, usually coleslaw) often spotted around lorry stations. The patrons are largely travellers. It is known that the temperature of cooked food is critical in maintaining its safety. This is observed in keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Salads are served cold and boiled rice served hot to discourage microbial growth. The handling of the food as described above defies this temperature requirement needed to keep the food safe.
Other food safety concerns associated with this emerging food service operation relate to the suitability of the food preparation areas, poor knowledge of the caterers in food safety and hygiene, absence of medical screening or certification of the food handlers, the informal and itinerant nature of their operations which, make it difficult for environmental health officers to control.
The food preparation areas are usually open spaces and makeshift structures (at lorry stations, markets and unauthorized settlements) that do not have the necessary supporting facilities to ensure safe catering. The immediate surroundings of the areas expose the food to high levels of contamination risk. These structures are obviously not licensed by the city authorities or any other food control agency.
Food safety knowledge base among these food vendors is very poor and could be established from their bad food handling practices.
The public health objective of food hygiene and safety is the prevention of illness attributable to consumption of food. This is because adequate supply of safe, wholesome and healthy food are essential for the health and well-being of humans.
All food handlers are required to use proper hygiene and sanitation methods when working with food. Poor knowledge of food safety and hygiene practices among food handlers can contribute to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses such as typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery.
Food-handlers who harbor and excrete intestinal parasites and enteropathogenic bacteria may contaminate foods from their feces via their fingers, then to food, and finally to healthy individuals.
Transfer of microorganisms by food handlers particularly from hands, is of vital importance. Low infectious doses of organisms such as Shigella and pathogenic Escherichia coli have been linked to hands as a source of contamination. Poor hygiene, particularly deficient or absence of hand washing has been identified as the causative mode of transmission. There is therefore the need to train all food handlers to improve their knowledge base in food safety and hygiene in order to prevent contamination of the food.
Food handlers serving as reservoirs of pathogens have been cited many times for passing on foodborne illnesses to consumers through casual handling of food. It is therefore imperative that all food handler’s undergo periodic medical screening before handling food for public consumption. Such medical assessment allows for early detection of health conditions of food handlers that could present serious public health problems as well as give indications to the food handler to seek medical treatment against those pathogens they may be carrying. This will also improve the health consciousness of the food handler. Enforcement and advocacy strategies must be encouraged to ensure compliance to safeguard public health and safety. Any food handler who has gone through medical examination should be given a health certificate to show that he or she is medically fit to handle food.
The detachment of these food vendors from regulatory control suggests that most of them, if not all, have never been medically certified to handle food for public consumption.
One major element in food borne disease outbreak investigations is to identify the source of the etiologic food, its distribution pattern and persons who might have used the implicated food.
The itinerant nature of the operations of these food vendors may present serious challenges in investigating any foodborne disease outbreak and providing appropriate solutions.
Food safety consciousness on the part of consumers is of paramount significance in the prevention of contracting foodborne illness. It allows the consumer to make informed decisions when patronizing a food service. Once a contaminated food is not ingested, the probability of falling ill is zero. Foodborne illnesses at best are unpleasant and at worst may lead to hospitalizations or deaths. Finances of families of affected persons are stretched when victims are hospitalized or die. This also puts lots of pressure on our health delivery system. One can only imagine the situation at the Effia Nkwanta Hospital in 2011, when over one hundred students from the Archbishop Porter Girls Secondary School in Takoradi were rushed to the hospital for medical attention when these students fell ill after being served with a meal from the school’s kitchen. Parents of victims from all parts of the country had to abandon their work and rush to the hospital to be with their wards.
A national food safety drive through the formulation of appropriate policies and a persistent and consistent awareness creation is needed to build that level of food safety consciousness among consumers. Some activities of the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) have sought to address the concerns raised. These however need to be supported by the general public and the scope expanded. Such activities include;
1. The annual Food Safety Week celebration where nationwide food safety awareness campaigns are organized to remind all stakeholders, especially consumers of the need to be food safety conscious.
2. The training of students in Basic Schools (Primary and the Junior High Schools) in food safety and hygiene.
3. Public education on food safety at lorry stations and markets targeting travellers and retailers.
4. The food safety training sessions organised for catering service providers; members of the Traditional Caterers Association (TCA) and the Indigenous Caterers Association (ICA).
5. Media discussions on food safety
Other activities that may be introduced to drive home this concern may include;
1. The playing of jingles or airing of advertisers announcements on food safety on radio and TV in the major Ghanaian languages during programmes that are widely patronized.
2. Engaging opinion leaders including the clergy to be food safety ambassadors.
3. Posters on food safety to be pasted at various workplaces and other public facilities.
4. Academia, the FDA and other stakeholders should introduce a food safety conference/workshop to be organised periodically to discuss food safety trends in Ghana. This will allow for review of food safety policies and regulatory framework to confront the challenges that the current trends of food safety present.
5. Introduce posters at eateries that encourage patrons to be food safety conscious and report issues that bother on the safety of the food they are served with to management of that particular eatery.
Consumers who are food safety conscious are aware and are concerned about their health and are therefore motivated to improve and /or maintain their health and quality of life to prevent ill health by engaging in healthy behaviours. It has also been shown that food safety consciousness predicts attitudes and the intention to purchase or patronize a food or a food service. Food safety consciousness will therefore promote public health and safety, make food service providers more responsible in their profession; make them more self-compliant, thereby making enforcement of the food service sector less relevant so that resources could be directed at more delicate public health issues.
Food safety consciousness will build a healthy population.
– See more at: http://www.myjoyonline.com/opinion/2014/December-19th/do-not-eat-your-life-away-be-food-safety-conscious.php#sthash.uFfeyGwi.dpuf