By Chinaza Arinzechukwu
Food safety is a concept that involves handling, preparing and storing foods in a way that protects the food from being contaminated. It’s a shared responsibility of everyone involved in the food chain (farmers, manufacturers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers).
Foods can become unsafe when contaminated with illness-causing bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals and when consumed may cause food poisoning. Symptoms range from mild to severe, but commonly include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever. In severe cases, food poisoning also called foodborne illness can lead to hospitalization or even death.
In the food supply chain, processors are obliged to operate effective food safety management systems, such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and good manufacturing practice (GMP) which are supported by programs, training, monitoring, and evaluation to ensure consistent practices.
While huge attention is given to the food industries in this regard, little attention is given to the street food industry; yet street food supply is an important component of the food supply chain in Nigeria.
Street foods are ready-to-eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors or hawkers in the streets, rural areas and urban centres. The street food industry plays an important socioeconomic role in Nigeria by meeting the daily food and nutritional demands of both rural and urban dwellers with a wide variety of foods that are relatively cheap and easily accessible. This sector also plays effective roles in creating jobs and responding to poverty and hunger.
In spite of the numerous advantages of street foods, studies show that this sector is a major vehicle for the transmission of severe and fatal diseases that are life-threatening. An average Nigerian buys ready-to-eat foods from the street vendors or from service establishments (restaurants, eatery and “Buka”) without any assurance that the food was hygienically prepared.
About 90 percent of school children buy street vended foods daily and we know that the majority of those who suffer from foodborne illnesses in Nigeria are children. Many parents due to their daily busy schedules in the workplaces hardly find time to properly prepare food for their young ones, hence, they purchase foods sold in the street.
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This as a result, maybe one of the contributing factors for the prevalence of diarrhea among children under age five in Nigeria because food is a major cause of diarrhea when it is prepared and stored in unhygienic conditions.
The risk of food poisoning from street food remains threatening in Nigeria and one obvious risk factor is the vendors’ ignorance of the causes of foodborne illnesses. Street food vendors are often unlicensed, untrained in food safety, food hygiene, and sanitation, and work under unsanitary conditions.
Additionally, their improper use of packaging materials, additives, pesticides and chemical ripening agents on food products constitutes hazards to consumers. These, however, have led to significant reports of health problems associated with the consumption of street foods and have placed a severe strain on public health.
Food safety is everyone’s business and that is why the United Nations has set out the 7th of June to be the World Food Safety Day. Therefore, there’s a need to inclusively enjoin everyone into adopting the food safety behaviour and practices as this will significantly contribute to achieving sustainable development goals, especially those relating to eradicating hunger, reducing poverty and improving the wellbeing of the citizens.
We definitely can’t eradicate poverty nor achieve good health and wellbeing if what’s being consumed daily by thousands of vulnerable and poor people is unsafe.
The Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Directorate at NAFDAC whose role is to ensure that food manufactured, imported, exported, distributed and sold in Nigeria meet the standard of food safety have focused on the formal food sectors and given little attention to the informal sector.
Being a major source of Nigeria’s food supply, it is, therefore, necessary that systems be put in place to ensure that street food handlers and vendors remain aware of all procedures needed to maintain the safety and suitability of food.
Integration of safety approaches (such as good manufacturing practices, hazard analysis critical control points and good hygiene practices) that will permeate the entire chain of street food would significantly reduce risks associated with street vended foods.
This can be achieved through continuous food safety training and capacity building focused on personal hygiene and best practices in preparing, packaging, storing and dispensing foods. Proper monitoring and evaluation must be in place to ensure that the knowledge transferred is effectively practiced.
In conclusion, integrating the food safety system in the street food sector will contribute to sustainable development goals of zero hunger and good health and wellbeing.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, the government should ensure safe and nutritious food for all. There is need for the government to establish effective street food projects and encourage active collaboration of stakeholders from local authorities, consumer associations, professional bodies, national authorities, and international organizations at regional levels to properly develop food safety public health policies, disseminate good practices and promote a common strategy in order to alleviate the public health consequences of foodborne illnesses and engender a safer and healthier society.
Arinzechukwu is a Food Scientist/Technologist and the Founder of Safe Food for All Initiative