Street-vended foods and food safety requirements

First Instalment

During the course of a recent food handling forum executed by the Government Analyst Food and Drugs Department (GAFDD) and contributed to by various other state agencies, the Stabroek Business met and spoke with food vendors, including small operators whose businesses are modest and underdeveloped. The fact that the forum (according to the GAFDD) was attended by only around 40 participants and, moreover, secured only limited media coverage, strongly suggests that there is no robust and sustained mechanism for providing both the population at large as well as vendors with a structured initiative aimed at providing critical education of food vending (particularly roadside food vending) and its public health implications.

We believe that this omission may well be putting significant numbers of consumers at risk and have therefore decided to undertake relevant research on the subject and to publish a series (comprising perhaps up to half a dozen articles) on the subject.

While some of our research is taken from material which is more than a decade old we have taken account of its relevance and its importance to the sector. Our effort is intended not only to educate consumers and vendors alike, but also to encourage the competent authorities to create and sustain a public education programme that speaks to this important issue.

Food vending on the streets is a way of life

As long ago as 1983 the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)/World Health Organisation (WHO) Committee on Food Safety identified the importance as well as the potential hazards of street-vended foods, having regard to the possibility of microbiological, chemical and physical contamination, which might occur under the conditions that obtain in the street-trading environment.

Accordingly, the Committee concluded that efforts should be made, globally, to educate vendors and others connected with street-traded foods, improve the environmental conditions in which the trade is practiced and seek to provide the environment in which those services that assist street food vendors in assuring the safety of their wares could become available.

In 1986, a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Food Protection for Urban Consumers, in considering the broad range of issues associated with street-vended foods, recommended that further basic techniques for regulation of street foods be implemented and that work be extended globally to study street food practices and develop adequate strategies to improve their safety. More recently, and here Guyana is a case in point, interest in the promotion of this important sector of the food supply system has been increasing in many countries, even in those where the issue had been previously ignored.

The heightened official and public interest in safety issues associated with street-vended foods has arisen out of what has become an increasing consumption of such food by local populations, eagerness by tourists to try such foods as part of their experience of the local cuisine and the popularity of street-vended foods among schoolchildren.

Paradoxically, heightened official concern is feared to have led to over-regulation and imposition of high overhead costs have come to be seen as counterproductive and having the effect of reducing the capacity of the sector to provide a range of nutritious foods at affordable prices.

Arising out of these developments the Codex Alimentarius Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean adopted a Code of Hygienic Practice for the Preparation and Sale of Street-vended Foods. A more global uniform text was subsequently prepared taking into account existing draft codes that had been prepared by the various regions.

In practice, however, effective implementation has had its considerable challenges. In view of global socioeconomic changes in recent decades this sector has experienced significant growth. Urbanization and population growth, especially in developing countries, particularly, have impacted significantly in the demand for street-vended foods.

The limited research that attended the preparation of this article suggests that street-vended foods are popular in Guyana primarily for their unique flavours and their convenience. Beyond that there is a case to be made for contending that street-vended foods help to assure food security for low-income urban populations and provides employment for the significant numbers of vendors who are part of the trade and who would, otherwise, might have been unable to establish a business.

There are, however, significant challenges associated with street-vended foods some of which have been found to apply here in Guyana. One of the obvious challenges is linked to the fact that many street vendors are deficient in their appreciation of the importance of safety and health considerations. However, enquiries among urban street vendors have unearthed a growing appreciation of the importance of raising standards on account of the greater consumer choice arising out of the expansion of the trade. These considerations notwithstanding, street-vended foods are still seen as a considerable public health risk.

Here in Guyana, it has long been recognized that if communities are to have the full benefits of street-vended foods with minimal risk of foodborne disease, some measure of strong central government and/or municipal oversight is necessary in order to ensure that the standard of safety for such foods is the best attainable. What has been found, however, is that the popularization and rapid growth of what is loosely described as roadside food has completely outstripped the ability of the available administrative structure to apply the necessary monitoring procedures. Simply put, the system has lost control of the food vending trade as it has come to be seen, increasingly, as a way of making money.

The dangers associated with its downside do not gainsay the benefits of street-vended foods which include their role as a source of inexpensive, convenient and often nutritious food for urban and rural poor; a source of attractive and varied food for visitors to the country; a major source of income for a large number of persons, particularly women and an opportunity for self-employment and the opportunity to develop business skills with relatively little investment.

A 1993 Survey undertaken by the WHO through its regional offices in order to assess the situation in regard to street-vended food and to obtain the views of responsible authorities concerning the hazards posed, reported a wide variety of foods, types of preparation, facilities and infrastructure. However, it also documented a significant downside associated with considerations that include deficiencies in basic infrastructure and services, including, particularly, potable water and difficulties associated with controlling the proliferation of street food vendors in view of their diversity and mobility. It also documented insufficient resources for inspection and laboratory analysis and a general consumer lack of knowledge about the microbiological status or the epidemiological significance of many street-vended foods; a lack of knowledge of the extent to which street vendors customarily apply basic food safety measures in their food preparation and delivery procedures and a lack of public awareness of hazards posed by certain street foods.

While, therefore, more than 70 per cent of the countries studied reported street-vended foods to be a significant part of the urban food supply and that street-vended foods included foods as diverse as meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, it was also reported that vending facilities varied from mobile carts to fixed stalls and that infrastructure developments were relatively limited with almost half of the services lacking access to potable water, toilets, refrigeration and waste disposal. Moreover, most countries studied reported some measure of contamination of food associated with infected handlers, inadequately cleaned equipment and time and temperature abuse. Most countries reported insufficient inspection personnel and insufficient application of the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) concept.

There were also significant concerns over issues of registration of vendors, training and medical examinations which were found to be absent from management strategies.

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