Living within the law: Street food vending and its public health considerations

Food vending on the streets is a way of life

There is a general acknowledgement here in Guyana and in other developing countries that street-vended foods play an important socioeconomic role in meeting food and nutritional requirements of coastal consumers at affordable prices to the lower and middle income people. Here in Guyana, street foods have also become inextricably linked to the popular ‘hang out’ night life that creates (particularly at weekends) an all-night market for street food vendors. Efforts by the Stabroek Business to secure reliable figures regarding the number of vendors offering cooked food at ‘the roadside’ so to speak were hampered by two factors. First, accurate counts are inhibited by a high percentage of non-registration (through the acquisition of Food Handler’s Certificates) with the municipal authorities; secondly, roadside food vendors tend to come and go with monotonous regularity. What we have been able to learn by engaging the Government Analyst-Food and Drugs Department (GA-FDD) is that roadside food vending continues to be popular in coastal Guyana and that the consumption of street-vended food continues to grow in popularity not only among working class Guyanese but amongst a sizeable portion of middle class Guyanese as well.

 GA-FDD Director Marlan Cole told the Stabroek Business during a recent interview that the Department has been paying careful attention to the continually growing popularity of roadside food vending and the public health considerations associated therewith. Cole told this newspaper that whilst the possible health risks associated with unregulated street-vended foods are “plain for all to see” there has always been the tendency to balance that factor against the popularity of “an accessible, reasonably-priced meal on the one hand and the public health risks associated with an unregulated, out-of-control industry.”

Our research suggests that the number of food poisoning notifications rose steadily worldwide since the inception of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the 1980s and that may be partly attributed to improved surveillance, increased global trade and travel, changes in modern food production, the impact of modern lifestyles, changes in food consumption, and the emergence of new pathogens. In the instance of Guyana there exists no comparable information. It is believed, too, that consumer knowledge and attitudes may influence food safety behaviour and practice though, here again, no data is available in the case of Guyana. Meanwhile, Cole insists, the  imperative of public health renders it absolutely necessary that consumers understand the epidemiology of food-borne illnesses in order to better position them to help in the prevention and control efforts.

Cole makes the point too that while street-vended foods are appreciated for their unique flavours as well as their convenience, they are also important in contributing to the nutritional status of the population. In contrast to these potential benefits. He says, too, that “without wishing to denigrate street vendors the fact is that they often lack knowledge in safe food handling, environment, sanitation and hygiene, food display, food service and hand washing, sources of raw materials, and use of potable water. If we have a sense of what they bring to the table, so to speak, we must also be aware of the public health considerations associated with the sector.

A lack of knowledge is revealed in the preparation methods, inappropriate holding temperature and in many instances, poor personal hygiene practised by food handlers. Indeed, these are among the main causes of food contamination. Additionally, there are instances, many of them, in which foods are not effectively protected from flies and dust.

Here in Guyana some street foods (fish is the most popular example) are mostly prepared    manually and sold by the roadside or, to a lesser extent, by itinerant vendors. As far as we are aware there has never been any comprehensive socio-economic study carried out to probe the conditions and determination of the hygienic and sanitary practices of street food vendors.

 Cole says that public health considerations render it   important to understand the epidemiology of food-borne illnesses.  It will help, he says, in prevention and control efforts. Cole believes that while “it will take a good deal of determination and effort and all sides” to meaningfully raise standards in the sector, the allocation by vendors of resources to control food-borne illness, including food safety measures and supporting the development of new food safety standards, and cost-effectiveness of interventions, must begin. “I believe that without any excessive investment roadside food vendors can meet the minimum acceptable standard under the law which stipulates that they have a Food Handlers’ Certificate, that they have potable running water and that they possess safe storage facilities, hot or cold as the case may be, for food.” Here he points out that the Food Handler’s Certificate is “a procedural matter” whilst running water is a matter of securing a clean and adequate tank and a certain volume of clean water. Storage, he said, can be covered by a simple but efficient hot or cold facility.

 The purpose of this study is to see the microbial risk of food poisoning associated with street food in order to determine the magnitude of the problem, risk factors, monitoring and surveillance, and measures of control.

 Guyana’s street food vendors are not enumerated in the formal sector of the country’s economy. Rather, they are identified as the informal sector. Their businesses are conducted  mostly as marginal economic activity so that there is no systematic documentation of the numbers of street food vendors, their scale of businesses, or the viability of their pursuits. However, the significance of the street food system in Guyana cannot be denied and there are numerous instances in which it has become elevated beyond what one might call a marginal economic activity. There is manifest evidence that street food vending in Guyana is a highly visible, economically efficient and deeply entrenched social practice. It is a pursuit engaged in by both males and females and families. There are instances in which large roadside food-vending operations are managed by a pair of young adults, even teenagers in some instances.

 While some street food vendors and their families come from rural backgrounds, there is increasing evidence of the emergence of urban individuals and families who opt for street food vending in circumstances where alternative employment is either not available or else, pays wages insufficient to sustain a family. While there used to be a time when  it could be reasonably assumed that the level of education achieved by a street food vendor would be comparatively low, there is evidence these days, of secondary school children ‘helping out’ at the night time in food vending stalls. This newspaper was told of two instances in which university undergraduates were moonlighting as roadside food vendors. In these instances the vendors are almost always constrained by their socio-economic circumstances. In many instances inquiries into their employment history reveal prior involvement in irregular, and low-paid income generating activities prior to their involvement in the street food business.

What is noteworthy about many, perhaps most street food vendors is their almost complete absence of dependence on formal societal institutions to make a living. Their businesses derive from their own individual strengths and the support extended to them by their immediate social networks, chiefly family. The earnings from their enterprises are often their sole means of living for themselves and their families. Street food vending prevents them from becoming an economic and social burden on the state.

 Cole makes it clear that the legitimacy of the street food vendor depends on them living within the law. He insists that it is neither a question of accommodating or pitying them, on the one hand, or marginalizing them, on the other. “It is a matter of   them trading within the framework of laws and regulations. They must earn a living and then there are those others of us who must be mindful of the public health considerations associated with what they do.”

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