Food… Everyone needs it. And no one survives without it. But what is the quality of food that you take in and how can you be sure that what you eat is keeping you healthy and not killing you softly?
In this edition of Hotline Documentaries christened ‘Poison on the Menu’, we explore how the food you consume could be killing you slowly with or without your knowledge and approval.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in every ten people falls ill from consuming contaminated food every year. There are many causes of this contamination, including food being liaised with harmful microorganisms, unwholesome additives and chemical residue, thereby resulting in foodborne diseases.
“Foodborne diseases are illnesses that we acquire from eating food that is contaminated. So the contamination could be as a result of micro-organisms or germs or it could also be as a result of toxins or poisons. So the symptoms include abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhoea,” Dr Donne Ameme of the University of Ghana’s School of Public Health explained.
The contamination could happen during production on the farm, transportation, food preparation, among others. The most common sources of foodborne diseases are fresh foods which are usually not cooked before consumption.
Victims tell their stories
Ama Kodum, a communications expert in Accra once had a terrible experience after consuming such contaminated food. “I was going to my village for a funeral. I bought banana along the way. By evening time, I started experiencing severe stomach pains and I was running. My brother in law had to take me to the hospital. For three to four days, I was completely down,” she narrated.
“Just imagine that the other day too I bought sweet pepper and put it in the fridge and a couple of days later, it had gotten spoilt. Let me use the language the women use, it melted. Its chemicals that people are putting on it because people want to make money at all cost so the vegetables must look beautiful and attractive and it’s killing people,” Ama Kodum added.
Ama was lucky to have survived because sometimes, it gets more serious than this. As Dr Donne Ameme explains, foodborne diseases could even cause organ failure and death. “Sometimes you may get complications that relate to the kidney, your kidney may fail. You may get joint complications.
"Sometimes, brain and nervous tissue damage could result from foodborne diseases and ultimately you may die but most of the food borne diseases resolve without complications,” he said.
Kofi Darko, a resident of Kumasi is another victim of food poisoning who has been sharing his story. He remembers buying fruits on the streets of Kumasi after a hard day’s work to satisfy his hunger because he had previously been advised to stay away from heavy food at night. Kofi says he almost lost his life that night, and had to spend two nights in the hospital.
“I had butterflies in my tummy. It was a weird experience. We had to rush to the hospital. After the doctor conducted tests, he said I had taken poison. They gave me activated charcoal so I can vomit everything out. They took samples to run some tests and they realized the fruits had some chemical substances….. They forced it to ripe by adding carbide that I hear they use to cause the banana to ripe immaturely. The doctor said if I hadn’t been rushed to the hospital, I could have died.” he narrated.
Deliberate/inadvertent contamination of foods
Sometimes, handlers of food deliberately and criminally contaminate them with poisonous chemicals to induce or delay ripening. Other times, the intention is to preserve the foods and make them more attractive to consumers. Remember the survey by Food and Drugs Authority last year which showed more than 90 percent of palm oil on the market contained deadly Sudan IV dye? Remember the story that formalin was allegedly being used to preserve ‘koobi’ fish? And many more. Well, the Food and Drugs Authority says they have a lot of challenges monitoring the quality of foods which are not packaged before sale.
“When we talk of the non-prepackage foods like palm oil, vegetables and others, regulating them is not easy. But we occasionally do market surveys to pick samples and check their quality,” Maria Lovelace Johnson who is Head of Food Regulation at the authority explained.
There are however other forms of contamination that happen inadvertently. Nanabro Hagar Afia of the Horticultural Department at KNUST conducted a study on the quality of some selected vegetables being consumed in the Kumasi Metropolis including carrot, cabbage and green pepper. Vegetables sampled from four of five different suburbs surveyed contained faecal materials, which Hagar notes could pose a threat to the health of consumers.
“They are from faeces dropping… Some use poultry droppings and the irrigation waters used could also be the source. Because the water runs through the refuse damps and gutters, there could be some human faecal residues in the water which also causes these coliforms,” Nanabro said.
The contamination was attributed to the deposit of human waste and garbage around the production sites which pollutes water used by the farmers to irrigate the vegetables. A situation that is all too common at various vegetable growing areas including Kwadaso, Tanoso and Gyinyaase. Joy news traveled to Gyinyase to go observe the cultural practices farmers apply to their work there.
“I am here at a large lettuce farm, the size of two football parks at Gyinyaase, near Atonsu in Kumasi. I see two young men carrying spraying cans running around helter-skelter to fetch water from a nearby source to come irrigate the vegetable fields. I approach to check the water source. It’s a drain, what is popularly called gutter. It’s a stagnant water source. It’s green and dark in colour. I can see faecal matter and I see heaps of rubbish by the side,” Joy news Joseph Opoku Gakpo reported.
Daniel Adjei who is with the local Vegetable Growers Association says they are working to stop this practice of using contaminated water to grow vegetables. “As for us we, are an association. We meet regularly and teach our members to use clean water for water their fields,” he explained.
I visit another such farm at Begoro in the Eastern Region. The farm sits beside stagnant, brownish looking and muddy water which is used for irrigating the fields. As these farmers admit, the water source is unhygienic and has been the source of fungus infestation that ends up destroying their fields.
“The water we use to irrigate our crops is dirty water. It’s not clean water. It attracts pests to the fields. Sometimes, cattle walk in it and infest it with fungus. And when we use it on our fields, they infest the farm. The moment you use it to water your crops, the fungus then attack the roots of the plants,” Danso Samuel a farmer in the area explained.
Agric Consultant with the Meridian Agricultural Services Aaron Attefa Ampofo says there is a reason for which the use of such polluted water is common in vegetable production. They add to the nutritional value of the soil and it thus gives farmers better yield.
“It’s not only nutrients that are coming into these drains. There are other industrial waste that comes into these drains, sometimes faecal matter. And they come with pathogens,” he explained.
Improper handling of food once they get off the farm has also been identified as major causes of food-borne diseases. Traders storing foods on the floor and in unhygienic environments in the market; tomatoes, for example, being kept until they rot before consumption, among others all contribute to such food contamination.
“It was also seen that the vegetables from the markets have higher levels of microbes than those on the farms. They were more contaminated…. That could be from the way vegetables are handled by the market women. Some don’t even wash the containers they use to keep them. Some keep them on the floor,” Hagar Nanabro noted her survey found.
The danger is that such vegetables and fruits do not go through heat before consumption, exposing consumers to the effects of food-borne diseases.
“Typical example is lettuces and our cabbages. We just put them in water, slice them and they go onto the waakye or foods we are consuming. And that is how dangerous some of these things can be,” Agric Consultant Aaron Attefa Ampofo explained.
Aaron Attefa believes it’s about time consumers took ultimate responsibility for the food they consumed and insisted that only clean, unadulterated stuff enters their stomachs. He is asking consumers to double check the quality of the foods they buy before consumption.
“The consumer has the power to change the situation. We have regulators there but the buck stops with the consumer because they have the purchasing power. They pay the cash. So consumers have to be observant. We have to give feedback to our producers,” he advised.
The story continues in part 2 of POISON ON THE MENU
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