By Chioma Obinna  

A few weeks ago, a woman allegedly died of food poisoning after eating in a restaurant in the Ikeja area of Lagos. 

About a year ago,  a couple, their daughter and maid in Enugu state reportedly died after taking a local substance known as Corn a man Flour and Oha Soup, suspected to have been poisoned.

Neighbours who were on-ground were unaware to ascertain the cause of the tragic incident. The deceased left behind a 9-month-old baby.

Chinyere Njebu, a  middle-aged woman, also lost her life  in Lagos at the food court of the Domestic Terminal II of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja after drinking a can of beer.

Cases like these abound of Nigerians that lost their lives due to foodborne disease and is one reason that public health physicians at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, NIMR, in Yaba, Lagos, are advocating for health screening for food handlers in Nigeria.

Burden

Every year, 25 billion people feed on vended foods daily.  According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, globally, almost 1 in 10 people are estimated to fall ill every year from eating contaminated food while 420,000 die from foodborne diseases.  

It also estimated that1 in 10 people will fall ill due to foodborne diseases, while 33 million healthy lives are lost. Foodborne diseases can be deadly, especially in children under five years of age and out of the 420,000 deaths, one-third are children.

According to experts, in Nigeria, about 51.7 per cent of urban dwellers that eat out of their homes consume ready-to-eat food from street food vendors and they in most cases receive their entire daily meal through that channel.

Sadly, informal ready-to-eat food vending practices (IRFV) constitute the most commonly used food provisioning system in Nigeria, especially among the urban poor, who, due to hostile living and working conditions, are often unable to prepare their food at home.  Ready-to-eat foods and beverages are sold on the streets and in small shops, motor parks, workplaces and even around schools. Sady, most of these handlers are not regulated or carry out regular secreening of their health status. 

Also, in Nigeria  today,, according to experts, three main hazards food can be contaminated include microbiological – bacteria, viruses, moulds and parasites; physical hazards (foreign objects) – metal, wood, glass, plastic, etc. and chemical hazards such as bleach, caustic soda, detergents, pesticides.

To reduce the spate of food poisoning in the country and ensure food safety, public health physicians say there is a need for health screening and food handlers” test before vendors are contracted to render services.

The physicians at the official flag-off of comprehensive health advocacy and screening of food handlers/Consumers from select Local Government Areas in Lagos state by the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research, NIMR, said diseases of public health importance could be conveyed through the food-derived in public kitchens and restaurants, hence, the need for concerted efforts to preserve cue the health of the consumers of such food, through food handlers’ screening tests.

Why health test

The explained that  screening tests for improving the health status of food handlers are required for all staff that handles food and beverages to be consumed by customers. The aim is to screen for bacteriological and parasitological diseases which can be transmitted from food handlers to the consumers of the food through direct contact with food including fruits and drinks or cooking utensils.”

In his submission, the Director-General of NIMR, Prof. Babatunde Salako, who stated that food could be a way of introducing diseases and infections to the human body added that food must be safe for consumption no matter how little.  “Food is very important both for animals and humans and without food, survival is very difficult. So, everybody must eat on a daily basis. Also, food could be a way of introducing diseases and infections to the human body. So we talk about food safety and food security. And we know that there are quite a number of foodborne diseases.

“Some of the diseases that are ravaging Nigeria and are the leading causes of deaths also come from the food we eat.

“Maybe not directly from the food itself but the contaminated food that we eat, we believe that we need to look at that direction to reduce illness due to food contamination and also death due to food contamination.

Food handlers

“In order to do this effectively, we looked at the food handlers to improve food safety and food security. We have them in various categories, the restaurants, the bukas, the roadside food sellers etc. many of them may not have been trained in the area of food safety.

“We need to know-how, many have been trained and how many can do that and how many have this knowledge.   We need relevant policies on food safety. Government departments, especially in primary healthcare, should be able to have regular screening for food handlers. They should also be able to enforce screening and training for them from time to time. “

He advised food handlers to maintain good hygiene at all times by embracing hand washing, he said the food handlers after the programme, should know the necessary things to do in the process of producing food for public consumption so that they can provide safety for people.

In the views of a Molecular Biology expert at NIMR, Prof Stella Smith, Food safety is one of the most significant public health issues worldwide and since the majority of Nigerians consume foods out of their Smith said over 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances such as heavy metals.

Range of diseases

Noting that foodborne diseases encompass a wide range of illnesses from diarrhoea to cancer, she said that  the  diseases are often  caused by contamination of food and can occur at any stage of the food production, delivery and consumption chain.

“They can result from several forms of environmental contamination including pollution in water, soil or air, as well as unsafe food storage and processing. 

Smith who listed some of the challenges of food safety to include lack of storage facilities, lack of regulation, food contamination, lack of power and availability of space said inadequate storage of food is a major contributing factor to the acute food insecurity in Nigeria. Poor storage facilities, and lack of constant power supply among other variables limit food storage both in rural and urban settings.

She said the proper storage of food is a critical part of maintaining high catering standards (FIFO) while improper handling, processing and storage of food result in food contamination.

Smith said concerted efforts must be put into ensuring safe food within the value chain. This must involve all stakeholders including policymakers (government), food vendors, farmers, researchers, industry, etc.

“Foodborne diseases caused by pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other biological and chemical agents can be brought to the barest minimum if concerted efforts are put into providing safe foods most especially RTE foods.”

Speaking,  the Director of NIMR’s  Central Research Laboratory, Dr Bamidele  Iwalokun said in Nigeria, Food vendors or handlers are also contributing to the problem of Antibiotic Resistance, adding that, poor food hygiene practices are a threat to food safety and food security.

He said these threats can be stopped along the food supply chain with food vendors playing a key role.

“Adding to the threat posed by foodborne pathogens is antibiotic resistance. Food-borne pathogens remain an important threat to food safety and public health in Nigeria. Food vendors/food handlers can contribute to the menace of food-borne pathogens as sources of their spread through poor food hygiene and safety practices.

Antibiotics & food poisoning

“The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in food animals and vended foods has further contributed to the burden of antibiotic resistance.  Food handlers/vendors can help in preventing the spread of antibiotic resistance through compliance to food hygiene and safety regulations and good health-seeking behaviours.

Contamination

In his presentation entitled: “Food Handlers Possible Sources of  Foodborne Microbial Pathogens: Rationale for Comprehensive Health Checks”, a Consultant Public Health Physician T NIMR, Dr David Oladele  explained that food handlers’ test was designed to ensure that those tasked with handling food do not pose any risk to others.

Oladele who is also the Head of the Clinical Sciences Department, NIMR, said the consumers could be exposed to many health hazards if the foods they consumed were contaminated.  He added that food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

In his executive summary of the project, Project Principal Investigator, Dr. Toyosi Raheem, said food can constitute a vehicle through which diseases can be transmitted from person to person as well as serve as a growth medium for microorganisms that can cause food poisoning.

Research

Raheem  said research institutes like NIMR are responsible for research and provision of scientific Asia for policy development and programme design in addition to relevant training programmes for capacity building and manpower development including those of food handlers in public places.

“Studies in some parts of Nigeria have shown that most food vendors did not have adequate knowledge of food safety practices and no sufficient information on the causative microbial and parasitic agents of foodborne infections.

NIMR owe it the responsibility to strengthen best practices among food handlers and those who patronize them.

“Prepared food, fruits and drinks for example zobo, etc are sold in the markets, motor parks, restaurants, schools by food vendors. Such food, if not properly handled by healthy food handlers, could constitute sources of morbidity and mortality to the consumers.”

He stressed the need to screen for bacteriological and parasitological diseases that can be transmitted from food handlers to consumers.

“In Nigeria, about 51.7 per cent of urban dwellers that eat out of their homes consume ready-to-eat food from street food vendors”

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.