Saturday, 21 May 2016

The battle for food safety in Nigeria

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Jollof rice, Eba, Efo Riro, Ewedu, Edikangikong, White Soup, Uziza, Banga soup, meat and fish, these are just a few of the most familiar dishes in Nigeria, a country renowned for having some of the best cuisines in the world.

With fast-growing economy, a booming middle class and complex supply chains, Nigeria faces a growing array of food safety challenges; giving rise to innovative solutions and collaborative initiatives by private sector players like the First HACCP Limited, Lagos and other state governments across the nation.

Despite the health and food safety industry's best efforts, food-borne diseases and food recalls are becoming regular occurrences in restaurants and food chains across the country.

More than half of all food-borne illness outbreaks in the country are associated with poor food handling by restaurants, banquet facilities, schools and other institutions according to the global Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's Environmental Health Specialists Network Surveillance for Food-borne Disease Outbreak.

It is clear no one is immune to the problem. Fast food chains across the country are hot spots for food outbreaks involving three different food-borne illnesses. In the midst of the crisis, these restaurant's stock price are daily suffering due to issues ranging from, but not limited to food poisoning, and other food-borne illnesses.

A Principal Consultant at First HACCP Lagos, Zainab Akanji is one Nigerian who has stood tall as a crusader in addressing the problem through training and food safety consultancy, offering an all-staff food safety refresher training to the food and health industry.

With this void, Akanji, who is also a United Kingdom certified food safety consultant, and a Chartered Institute of Environment trainer, is fast making a mark in giant strides through plain-language summaries of the study findings and recommendations, setting an agenda for the Nigerian government and the restaurant industry who are daily using these findings to develop effective interventions to improve food safety in restaurants.

Passionately speaking on some of the causes of food-borne illnesses that unsuspecting consumers suffer from cooking practices, she was quick to link E. coli O157:H7 infections to eating in restaurants. From experience, she enthuses that poor beef preparation practices, cross-contamination of other foods, and undercooking can lead to food-borne illness.

From a survey and independent research carried out by her firm, First HACCP Limited, the report found that many restaurants prepared food in ways that could lead to cross contamination or undercooking.

For example, in 62 per cent of restaurants where workers used bare hands to handle raw beef, workers did not wash their hands after handling it. And about 80 per cent of managers said that they did not always use a thermometer to make sure that their foods were cooked to the right temperature. This lapse shows the dearth of kitchen managers who are duly certified in food safety.

When quizzed on what the ideal role of the government in handling practices of food-borne illnesses especially with the frequency of inadequate prevention of cooking practices, she said, "Poultry is the most common food associated with deaths from food-borne illness all over the world.

Food-borne illness outbreaks have been associated with fresh produce like poor restaurants' handling practices, which contribute to food-borne illness outbreaks. The government needs to look at receiving and training restaurant workers, and that is my forte.

"Additionally, for the fear of losing their job, food worker experiences with and beliefs about working while ill with vomiting can transmit germs, diarrhea and food-borne illnesses from themselves to the food they prepare. People who eat that food can then get sick. This is an equally important cause of food-borne illness outbreaks. And so restaurant, food chain operators need to learn more about factors that influence restaurant workers' decisions to work while sick."

Drawing inference from the Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA), which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2011, "it was a critical step forward. This Act which addresses the single biggest factor needed for food supply safety success -- a focus on proactive strategies to prevent recalls and illness outbreaks. Industry best practices have now been turned into law in America, and it is time that Nigeria works together to make it easy to implement the new regulations," Akanji said with eagerness.

Through a proactive and preventative control approach, driving a note of advice to the Federal Ministry of Health, she added, "Nigeria needs to further push towards proactive food safety measures -- to extend beyond its traditional reactive role. The Ministry of Health has the power to stop unsafe and possibly contaminated food from entering the food supply, but it is not. To best comply with these requirements, companies need to consider implementing better visualization, documentation and communication tools that can deliver better insight into food safety processes."

Disclosing key ways to leverage technology tools based on tenets of the Preventative Controls rule, "the government should seek to analyse the hazard risks, test for preventive controls such as allergen and sanitation controls, keep a watchful eye, hope for the best but plan for the worst, renew its dedication to leveraging the best tools and technologies to support food safety strategies and around the goals and objectives of a proactive food safety programme, and most importantly create testing programmes to ensure controls and corrective actions are effective.

Culled from ThisDay newspaper