Today is World Health Day, and the theme for this year is “Food safety: from farm to plate, make food safe”. The World Health Organization, concerned by the toll that foodborne diseases cause to human health, adopted a resolution recognising food safety as an essential public health function in 2000.
The concept of food safety covers the entire food chain from production to consumption, and, at each stage, there are associated hazards.
The WHO states that unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases from diarrhoea to cancers. In addition, an estimated 2 million people are killed annually by food and waterborne diarrhoeal diseases, many of them, children.
Unsafe food can cause illness either through infection (contamination with biological agents such as bacteria, viruses and parasites or toxication (contamination with chemicals).
Food poisoning usually manifests as fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea and is most commonly caused by salmonella, escherichia coli (E. coli) and campylobacter.
These bacteria are mostly found in milk, raw or undercooked poultry and drinking water (campylobacter), unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat and fresh fruits and vegetables (E.coli), eggs, poultry and other products of animal origin (salmonella).
A study in Lagos reviewing records in 14 public hospitals between 1999 and 2008 identified over 80, 000 cases of salmonella disease and 800 deaths.
Cholera is another major foodborne and waterborne bacterial disease. Between 2010 and 2013, Nigeria reported over 70,000 cases and almost 3,000 deaths from presumptive or confirmed cholera.
In Nigeria, because of poor data collection and the absence of surveillance systems, it is difficult to reach an accurate picture of the burden of foodborne disease. However, there is some evidence that these illnesses contribute to ill health and death in the country, and there is evidence of unsafe food practices by caterers and food handlers in various settings.
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control has the responsibility for ensuring that processed food produced, sold or used in Nigeria is safe for human consumption and has produced guidelines and regulations to support this. It is difficult to say how stringently these are followed, as there were no statistics available on the NAFDAC website. Members of the public are able to raise concerns with NAFDAC via their website.
There has been some progress in the past few years, in relation to putting in place some of the structures and processes for improving food safety in Nigeria. The National Food Safety Management Committee Bill was apparently signed into law in 2014 (although it is not listed on the National Assembly website) andsubsequently inter-ministerial committees were established to implement the Act.
A key stakeholder in the long process of signing the Bill into law seems to have been The Association of Food Vendors of Nigeria, who have an informative website and Facebook page but no information about who the members of the association or its officials are.
As Nigerians, food is an important part of our culture, and food safety has a significant impact on our health. We should all make an effort to understand what is already in place to ensure food safety and demand more accountability in this area.