Soup Safety

It is often said that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is made up of more than 250 ethnic units. In spite of the differences, real and perceived, that exists between all these ethnic groups, there appears to be a common culinary denominator that cuts across them all. This is the penchant for vegetable soup (which in reality are actually stews) eaten with carbohydrates as side dishes.

The list is endless from North to South to East to West to South South. Efò, Ewedu, Afang, Edikang Ikong, Banga, Water Leaf, Bitter Leaf, Ewuro, Fisherman’s Soup, White Soup, Tete, Miyan Kuka, Soko, Akobi, Brassas, Okapi, Ogbono, Oha, Ugba, Editan, Achi…. all tasty irresistible delicacies that can go with Pounded Yam, Amala, Eba, Semovita, Ground Rice, Fufu, Akpu, Loi Loi, Starch, Wheat Meal, Tuwo Shinkafa, Tuwo Masara, There is just something about our national palate for these various kind of soups that seem insatiable.

Nigerians love their soups no doubt about it.

But…..as mouth watering as they are, what needs to be sounded clearly is that these different soups pack a formidable food borne illness punch if they are prepared and consumed without proper handling and processing.

To understand this very well let’s consider the following:

1. During cultivation, especially in the urban areas and during the dry season, these vegetables are irrigated in many cases with water from questionable sources such as heavily polluted sewage water. In addition to these, the use of organic manure like animal dung is widespread in cultivating these vegetables.

2. In order to protect leafy vegetables from losing their turgidity and becoming flaccid and also in order to maintain a fresh appearance, they are often sprinkled with water after harvesting and during exposure in the open market. Invariably the moist condition encourages the growth of microorganisms including pathogenic ones.

3. The poor sanitation of the open markets where these vegetables are sold contributes to direct and indirect contamination. The open table way these vegetables are exposed for sale by sellers in the market further makes them susceptible to contamination.

4. Handling of the vegetables with dirty hands by the sellers also add to the bacterial load on the vegetables.

All these come together to make the local vegetables that are the main ingredients for preparing our national soups a potpourri of pathogenic bacteria that can unleash unimaginable illness when not properly treated and processed before eating.

Simple steps like thorough washing the vegetables in running water rather than washing in a basin full of water, sanitizing, blanching with hot water, cooking to right temperature and stirring the soup properly during cooking to eliminate cool spots, storing leftovers properly or disposing them off where there is no facility to store properly will ensure a safe and enjoyable soup to accompany any swallow of choice.

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More Than Meets The Eye

“there is more to food borne illness than the frequent commute to the toilet or to the local pharmacy down the street.”

In many quarters in this country, the outcome of a person with food borne illness is simply viewed as having the nasty and unpleasant symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, tiredness, stomach upsets for a period of time after which recovery sets in with or without medical treatment and the victim gets back on with life. Or, less acknowledged, outright death and fatality of victims.

But there is an ominous and little known aspect of food borne illness that began to be considered some five years ago which may aggrandize the public health burden of food borne illness globally, Nigeria inclusive. This is the Long-Term Health Outcomes of Selected Foodborne Pathogens.

The Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (CFI), a US based non profit research and advocacy organization, released a report in 2009 that placed the spotlight on the long-term health consequences of five foodborne illnesses pathogens: Campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, and Toxoplasma gondii.

According to the report, serious life-long complications like hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the leading cause of acute kidney failure in children; paralysis; seizures; reactive arthritis; hearing/visual impairments and mental retardation have been associated one way or the other with these food borne pathogens.

To read the full report click here: CFI LTHO REPORT

Even though the authors of the report acknowledged that “this long-term health burden of foodborne disease is not well understood” and “additional research is needed to improve our knowledge about these diseases”. The study counters the common public perception that food borne illness is basically limited to the symptoms previously mentioned above and in rare cases fatalities.

That is to say there is more to food borne illness than the frequent commute to the toilet or to the local pharmacy down the street.

A 2012 case of a 7 year old girl that was left brain damaged and paralyzed from food poisoning in Australia sort of validates the hypothesis raised in the CFI report. To read the full story of this incident click here: Girl Paralyzed By Food Poisoning Traced To KFC Chicken

The implication of this for Nigerians is that our public health system, inadequate and already getting overwhelmed as it is, will yet have to cope with additional burden if the food borne illness problem isn’t addressed as a matter of great priority.

A pragmatic preventative approach to address the problem of food borne illness in this country through enforcing existing food safety legislations, Local Governments rising up to their statutory responsibilities of food business inspections, and most importantly continually creating public awareness about the food borne illness problem to counter the dearth of public awareness of this problem will spare our public health management system additional burdens that it simply cannot bear at this moment.

Ten Years After

This year 2014 marks the tenth year anniversary of a significant food borne illness incident in Nigeria that for a moment brought the problem to the highest domain of public discussion.

I am referring to the Indomie Noodles scare that occurred in May 2004.

When the news started making rounds that Indomie Noodles, a very popular instant noodles brand, was resulting not just in sickness but in deaths of those that eat them, it sparked off a kind of negative nationwide reaction to a food brand unseen or unheard of before in this country.

Calls were being made from friends to friends, family members to family members, SMS were flying about (this was before the advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter in the country) and there was a wild stampede in almost every home across the country to get rid of the noodles. Even in schools, teachers were going from lunch pack to lunch pack of kids looking for anyone that brought noodles to school mainly so because Indomie noodles was a favorite meal of children at that time. Everyone was suddenly aware of and talking of food borne illness and its effects. In government corridors, social gatherings, schools, offices, homes, churches there was a frenzy of activity.

Never before and never afterwards till date has so much public attention been given to the notion that food can lead to death in the annals of this country.

The true story of what actually happened still remains unclear. But one thing that was established after the frenzy died down was that there were no sporadic deaths across the country resulting from eating Indomie noodles as was being rumored. What was confirmed was that someone did die in Lagos…but the connection of that fatality to the eating of a pack of Indomie noodles wasn’t scientifically established in anyway.

I recall without prejudice that I was a Quality Control Technician at the Indomie Noodles Plant of De-United Foods Industries Limited (Makers of the Product) and at the exact tenth year anniversary to be marked in May this year I hope to put a post up that looks into the entire episode.

One good but shortlived outcome of the whole episode is that ordinary folks became aware of the problem of food borne illness and the dangers of consuming contaminated foods.

To Eat Or Not To Eat?!?

To Eat Or Not To Eat?!?

To Eat Or Not To Eat?!?

I remember the first time I ate out at a fast food outlet. It was with my mum and brother at a place called Kingsway Rendezvous sometimes in the mid 1980s. At that time eating out hadn’t caught up as a favorite pastime, and the idea of fast food outlets was still in its infancy in Nigeria and limited to major cities like Lagos, Ibadan, & Port Harcourt.

But now almost 30 years afterwards, fast food outlets of various shades and grades litter the nation’s landscape. From the major players with franchises in almost every major city to the small town new entrants.

It appears many of these fast food outlets essentially pay very little thoughts to keeping a food safety/hygiene regimen and are more concerned on increasing the profit margin of the business. The idea of checking temperature of food, providing thermometers, using sanitizers, using color coded chopping boards, and even food handlers training and medical tests are viewed as overheads that can be conveniently avoided to push up the profit margin, particularly because there is no effective monitoring and enforcement body in the country. Very few local governments enforce their statutory duties of food business inspection for sanitation and hygiene compliance. The low pay and high turnover rate of fast food outlet workers doesn’t help either such that new staff are always needed to replace those that leave and training new staff again and again and again can be seen as unnecessary expenditure.

In other words there is always a food borne illness risk exposure every time one eats at these fast food outlets.

So how would one know where to eat or not to eat in order to minimize the risk of food-borne illness?

Eating from a recognized brand outlet is good guide. Or eating at an upscale outlet could tend to give an assurance of safe food. Or eating at an outlet with a track record of zero food-borne illness complaints. Or eating at an outlet with well designed and clean and well decorated sitting tables & chairs. All these are good guides, but they may let one down eventually cuz looks and appearance of the sitting areas and serving points doesn’t give a true picture of the state of where the food itself is prepared and track records have a way of failing unexpectedly.

One way that I typically determine if a fast food outlet or restaurant is ok for me to eat out is to “case the toilet” as in like to “case a joint”. That is to check out the state of the toilet facility of the food business. The state of the toilet in a food business facility is usually a reflection of the state of the kitchen where the food is coming from, which in many a cases is hidden away from the view of the customers.

A clean toilet with well stocked hand wash liquid soap, well fragranced, running water and a cleaning schedule posted on the wall of the toilet is indicative of a food business with good hygiene, cleanliness, and sanitation culture and values. And this you can be sure extends to the kitchen hygiene and sanitation.

However a toilet with broken door handle/knobs, exposed light bulbs, leaking hand wash tap, stained hand wash sink, broken toilet cover, empty soap dispenser, depleted toilet paper, no cover on the toilet WC, bad flushing handle, water puddle on the floor, cracked tiles and ceiling cover, and with no cleaning schedule visibly displayed is a red flag to me any day any time. I can bet you on your dollar that such a place will have a kitchen with poor hygiene and sanitation standards with high risk of food-borne illness.

Before you check out the menu at the serving line, check out the toilet first. This may spare you the trouble of frequent trips to your own toilet when you get back home!

To “case a joint” is an idiomatic expression which means: to check out the details to, and make speculations about, a home, car, store or other location by looking the place over. Source: http://www.urbandictionary.com