In the past, roadside food vendors were mandated by relevant agencies to either cover their stuff with transparent polythene, or display such in show glasses. In addition, food items must be sold in a hygienic environment, with the vendor also clean and well presented. All this was to prevent contamination and spread of germs and diseases.
Nowadays, however, the very opposite is what obtains, as food vendors do their business anywhere and anyhow. They no longer bother to cover food items, just as they sell right beside dirty gutters and refuse dumps. It is not uncommon to see flies perching on displayed roadside food items, just as passing vehicles ‘garnish’ them with dust and smoke from exhaust fumes. Nobody seems to be doing anything to check the situation.
Ope Osibogun, a medical epidemiologist, said due to the unprecedented urban growth, Nigeria has seen a rise in street vendors, which has led to the demand for ready-made and “fast” food items by some citizens, who are having to cope with tight schedules.
She said: “Because of the opportunity for fast profits, a lot of people with inadequate training and preparation are going into the business of fast food. Street foods are major public health risks because these vendors lack knowledge in basic food safety measures.
“The conditions in which the vendors operate are unsuitable for the preparation and selling of food, which is prepared either at home or at stalls, made up of wood, and are usually packed in polythene bags, plastic or tins. The place of preparation is not usually hygienic, not properly lit and close to sources of contamination.
“Most of these food items are not covered and are exposed to flies and dust, which may harbour food pathogens. In some instances, there may be presence of animals, insects and liquid wastes in the preparation area, which may be due to improper food handling and waste disposal.”
She continued: “In such cases, common pathogens easily transported include, escherichia coli, salmonella, shigella, campylobacter and staphylococcus aureus. Food handlers’ hands are the most important vehicles for the transfer of organisms from faeces, nose and skin to the food.
“The quality of raw materials used in the preparation is also a critical issue to be considered. For example, if contaminated water is used for drinking, washing of food items, incorporated in food as ingredient, used in the processing of food or used in the washing of equipment, utensils and hands, such is a well-known vehicle for such enteropathogens as E coli, salmonella and campylobacter.”
She said the fact that some vendors also purchase cheap adulterated ingredients with unpermitted chemical additives from unauthorised suppliers, is another issue. The poor maintenance of equipment and utensils may lead to a build-up of toxins and microbes. A longer holding time of food items that have been cooked leads to favourable conditions for the growth of foodborne pathogens.
On how to prevent food-borne diseases, Osibogun advised that focus should be on educating food handlers, improving environmental conditions under which the business is undertaken, as well as providing essential services to the vendors, including periodic screening and treatment to break the transmission of food-borne diseases.
Also, Dr. Echefu Nwachukwu, a Medical Director at John Burke Memorial Hospital in Lagos, said the issue of patronising open roadside foods is very common, due to the fact that many people leave very early for work. So, the vendors are filling a vacuum, by providing this needed service.
“This has exposed a lot of people to diseases and associated risks,” she explained. “In assessing this, we look at the people who patronise foods vendors and the environment where foods are made and sold. The health risks involved include such contagious diseases as cholera, dysentery, meningitis and diarrhoea. This is because the microorganisms do not take a long time to show up, as their incubation period like is within a few hours to five days. A patient with cholera will show signs of vomiting and stooling, which will lead to dehydration and possible death, if not properly taken care of.
“Another disease that can be contacted is typhoid fever, which is prevalent in our environment. Studies have shown that most cases of typhoid can be prevented, if hygiene is given premium attention. This brings us to the issue of how hygienic are these foods prepared, and as they sell on the streets, what measures are the vendors taking to protect these foods?
“Roadside foods are exposed to flies, dust, as most people eat by the roadside after purchasing these foods.
“We also look at the source of water used in preparing these foods. Because there is lack of water, people look for water from various means and this leads to illness. However, some people develop allergies after taking some foods, which can come in the form of such reactions as skin rashes, patches all over the body, and cases of asthma, all of which have been linked to exposure to unhygienic foods.
“We also have rising cases of cancer. Such foods as roasted are corn, yam and barbecue (suya), most of which are prepared by the use of charcoal, are said to be carcinogenic. These are some of the foods that increase free radicals and help cancer to thrive, and when one allows such to continue piling up in the system, they causes cancer in the long run.
“When we look at food-borne diseases, there are viruses, organisms and bacteria that can be on these foods, depending on the way they are presented and prepared. Rotavirus is associated with some of the cases of such air borne diseases as common cold, cough, and catarrh, lower and upper respiratory organs. There is also the risk of having abdominal pains and cramps. The issue of food poisoning is also very common. So, it is important to consider the health risk before patronising these roadside vendors.”
Nwachukwu said it is important that government embarks on sensitisation programmes, to enlighten citizen, on the risk of roadside foods, as well as ensure that adequate measures are taken to improve the environment where roadside foods are prepared. The vendors should be mandated to use clean water and sell in healthy environment. With this, illnesses and needless deaths will be reduced.
A reliable source at the Mosan Okunola Local Council Development Area said the environmental unit of the council has food and beverage section charged with the responsibility of ensuring hygienic conditions within the locality. The source revealed that more enforcement needs to be done, as such acts are still rampant due to lack of alternatives for this segment in the society.
“I believe that to rid the society of such, alternatives should be provided as well as enforcement which the local government will be working on.”
Another source from the government-owned hospitals in the state said, “it is very obvious that uncovered foods pose a threat to the health and well being of people especially children and that is why at every time, we engage our patients and lecture them on the ills of consuming these foods.”