The Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) must, therefore, scale up its surveillance efforts and take steps to clear food vendors without permits off the streets as their operations are a source of danger to people's health and lives.
A Nutritionist at the Department of Nutrition and Food Science of the University of Ghana, Professor Matilda Steiner-Asiedu, who has made the call, emphasised the need for authorities to take surveillance seriously, especially at a time considered to be difficult due to high prices of food, and vendors wanting to find a means of making profit from their operations at the least cost.
“Due to lifestyles and other circumstances, many more people are patronising food prepared from outside their homes and that has also led to an increase in food vendors.
“If the activities of these vendors are not properly regulated and supervised to conform to the health and safety rules, that could be dangerous,” Prof. Steiner-Asiedu explained.
Reacting to the recent news about the food poisoning incident at Oyibi Bush canteen in the Kpone Katamanso District, the nutritionist in an interview with the Daily Graphic maintained that a sustained surveillance would also prevent people with communicable diseases from operating food joints which could have an effect on people.
"Government should resource the FDA to do proper surveillance on street foods that we buy. Every FDA office in the districts should be given the needed logistics and human resource to do their work well. This incident is a wake-up call and our authorities must up their game in ensuring food safety not only on the streets, but in restaurants as well," she said.
The Daily Graphic last Friday broke the news of a suspected food poisoning incident at Oyibi in the Kpone Katamanso Municipal Assembly in the Greater Accra Region affecting more than 40 people with five suspected deaths.
The FDA following the reportage, issued a statement confirming the incident and said 53 people were hospitalised with one death.
The food safety regulator, thus, suspended the operations of the food vending joint, Yellow Sisi, and three others, after an environmental assessment of the food vending sites and the food preparation site located at Malejor and three vending sites at Bush Canteen, Prison Joint, and Sharp Curve.
Initial reports from that assessment revealed poor food handling practices which could have resulted in the contamination of the food, leading to the foodborne disease outbreak.
Talking about what might have caused the food poisoning, Prof. Steiner-Asiedu, also a former Dean of Biological Sciences of the UG, said although the causative agent had not been identified in the instant case, the problem could result from how food was stored.
“People these days use all forms of chemicals to preserve their food from spoilage which later turn out to be poisonous to the body,”
She observed that people stored food in the kitchen with insecticides or pesticide and "once there is a leakage, it contaminates the food without the person noticing”.
“Chemicals, therefore, should be stored separately from food so that if there is any leakage, it would not affect the food.”
For this case, "We have to wait for the investigation to be concluded but I wouldn't attribute it to somebody not washing hands properly but rather the food itself because it affected many people. It could be an issue of harmful chemical or bacteria that resisted heat," she indicated.
Impact of poor food handling
The contamination of food, the nutritionist said, could be from the way food was handled and not from the food itself. She warned against eating food that had become mouldy because it could cause serious stomach upset or make one sick.
“People must try and prepare food at home to ensure their own safety, Prof. Steiner–Asiedu said, admitting that it could sometimes be stressful "but we should not make it a habit to always eat outside".
Food vendors, she added, must have a way of serving their food without their hands coming into contact with the food .
"The hand used to handle the money is the same bare hands used to serve the food and that is unhygienic,” emphasising that the general public must exercise their right in ensuring that the environment in which they bought food was clean and safe.
People, she said, should be conscious of their own safety while authorities played their part, adding: "We need to educate the public on food safety and therefore the media must support this education by creating the platform for the people to be informed".
Meanwhile, checks within the Adabraka vicinity on food vendors with permit revealed that though a number of them had permits to operate their businesses subject to renewal every year, others did not have.
Those who did not, explained that they were yet to register because the period given for the registration was short.
In an interview with the Health Director of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Evelyn Kuukyi, she said the assembly had enforced the law and consistently on a monthly basis, conducted unannounced checks on vendors within its jurisdiction and persons without permits were prosecuted.
She said it was mandatory for food vendors to go through certain processes, including medical screening to receive the medical certificate to operate food joints.
“Last year, for instance, we registered over 6,000 food vendors, but like you know in every society, there would still be bad lots, but we as much as we can ensure the right thing is done”.
Another challenge, she also indicated, was that some of the food vendors within the jurisdiction prepared the food from somewhere and came to sell on the streets, given the cosmopolitan nature of the municipality. “ This notwithstanding, we will sustain and intensify surveillance in our bid to promote food safety at all times,” Ms Kuukyi, assured.