The Battle for Food Safety in Nigeria

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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, Adedayo Adejobi writes

Jollof rice, Eba, efo riro, ewedu, edikaikong, 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 burgeoning 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.

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.

While unsuspecting Nigerians are suffering, and the government turning a blind eye to this growing concern,

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 enthused.

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 visualisation, 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.

“As most food companies do not have strong HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans in place, taking into account food safety hazards which pervade the life of the average Nigerian. Organisations in the food industry need to have immediate access to both current and historical situations at control points to easily see their proximity to each other, as well as to other components,’’ she said.

According to her, most concerns to analysts are the possible outbreaks involving two strains of E. coli, bacteria that can cause severe intestinal cramps, diarrhea and fever.

“The huge cost of those outbreaks would become apparent when it comes as a crisis, necessitating for the government to import new food safety equipment and procedures, testing done to try to determine the cause of the problems and the cost of discarding food, hiring auditors and consultants and training employees in new procedures.

“The dire need to overhaul its food safety regime before it denigrates to such level beneath health and food safety standards, the government has the responsibility of bringing the risk of contamination to near zero.

“Our food-onions, vegetables, fruits, need to be cleaned in a central location and packed in sealed containers, then transported or shipped to individual restaurants. The foods we consume that arrive in the restaurants should ideally be blanched in boiling water to kill microbes, and raw meat should be handled differently,”Akanji told THISDAY.

Giving solution to the poor company policies that hamper the health and safety of consumers,’’ the Federal government must ensure food companies institute a paid sick leave policy, unusual in the fast-food business. Food safety is a key issue for consumers in Nigeria,” says Akanji.

“Over 70 per cent of senior executives who attend our firm’s routine trainings and leaders debate that food safety as being the issue that will have the greatest impact on consumer preference in Nigeria in coming years.”

Akanji explains that the question was posed as part of an opinion poll conducted by a unit of the First HACCP group with the topic of food safety polling considerably higher than other issues, including sustainable sourcing, genetically modified ingredients, health and wellness, and price. In a follow-up question, the audience chose cost of regulation and poor enforcement as the biggest barriers to growth for the food industry in Nigeria, Akanji continues.

“These issues polled higher than things like access to technology, human resource capability, cost of raw materials, and route to market/poor infrastructure,” she says.

Not surprisingly, addressing food safety and harmonisation of regulations feature prominently in my work plans through the year. By serving as the leading industry platform for non-competitive debate in Nigeria, Akanji aims to promote the value of self-regulation and public-private partnership as a cost-effective way of delivering wider benefits to society.“We also believe in harmonised standards, especially in the context of food quality and safety,” the food safety expert noted.

“By harnessing the technical expertise of our food companies, we work with appropriate authorities to accelerate the removal of trade barriers and promote the alignment of standards with international best practice. A key focus of my five-year strategic plan will be accelerating food safety improvements in Nigeria, by scaling up capacity building and providing local trade associations with scientific information, education, and industry best practice,” Akanji said.

When asked on best possible ways to leveraging resources to help local food systems with food safety, she said ‘‘Food safety research and training programmes for local food systems require partnerships between local food entities and groups, universities, and state and federal governments. A good starting point for the training efforts, require collaboration with state health departments that may be contracted as third-party inspectors for stakeholders in the local food marketing chain, such as retail food stores. State departments of agriculture and health could be strong partners with universities in developing and delivering outreach programs related to risk assessment and regulatory compliance for farmers’ markets and food safety programs. Creating a Nigerian Food Safety Inspection Service would be an appropriate starting point for research and training efforts related to meat, poultry, dairy, and egg products not inspected by the health institutions.’’

The impact of food safety standards on processed foods imported and exports in Nigeria cannot be over-emphasised, as practically, there is ample room for Nigeria’s health sector and related food safety policies to tweak the standards to be stronger than necessary to achieve optimal levels of social protection, and to twist the related testing and certification procedures to make Nigeria’s competing products competitive with imports.