Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Street Food: A Tasty Treat or a Toxic Trap? Balancing Convenience with Public Health

. . . As Nigeria’s Economic Woes Worsen, Citizens Turn to Street Food Amidst Soaring Inflation and Regulatory Vacuum.

In a country grappling with economic crisis, runaway inflation, and rampant governance failures, Nigerians are increasingly resorting to street food as a desperate measure to sustain themselves. With the formal economy in shambles and regulatory frameworks in disarray, the allure of readily available and affordable street food has become a bitter sweet reality for many.

As the purchasing power of citizens continues to dwindle, the demand for street food has skyrocketed, forcing buyers to overlook concerns about safety and hygiene in pursuit of a filling meal. The proliferation of street food vendors, unregulated and unlicensed, has become a stark reminder of the government’s failure to address the socio-economic woes plaguing the nation.

In this investigative report, we delve into the world of street food in Nigeria, exposing the dire consequences of poor governance, economic mismanagement, and the human cost of a nation in crisis.

By Collins Odigie Ojiehanor for LightRay! Lagos.

“I was once rushed to the hospital after eating the food I bought from one mama on my way home,” Fatima Ibrahim recalled, her voice heavy with concern. The memory of that day was vivid.
After a long day at work, Fatima had stopped by a street vendor for a quick meal. She chose a familiar favorite, dodo—fried plantains. “I bought dodo with the food,” she continued, shaking her head. “I didn’t know they used this substance they call carbide to make the plantain ripe.”

That night, after enjoying her meal, Fatima began feeling unwell. Her stomach churned, and she was gripped by a wave of nausea, she disclosed. Within hours, the pain became unbearable, and she found herself being rushed to the hospital after a moment of uncontrolled vomiting. The diagnosis was food poisoning, likely caused by the chemically ripened plantains.

As she spoke, Fatima’s frustration was deep. “Many vendors don’t seem to prioritize hygiene, and it’s a gamble every time you indulge. While I enjoy the convenience because I usually leave home early to get to work here in Ikeja, I’m always worried about falling sick.”

Street food refers to prepared foods sold by vendors or hawkers in public spaces, such as streets, markets, or sidewalks. It is often affordable, convenient, and culturally significant.

Street food persists in Nigeria and other countries for several reasons:

  1. Affordability: Street food is often cheaper than restaurant meals, making it a viable option for low-income individuals.
  2. Convenience: Street food vendors are often located in high-traffic areas, making it easy for people to grab a quick bite while on the go.
  3. Cultural significance: Street food is often deeply rooted in local culture and tradition, providing a sense of community and connection.
  4. Economic opportunities: Street vending provides employment and income for many individuals, particularly in informal economies.
  5. Demand: Street food is often in high demand, particularly in urban areas with busy lifestyles.
  6. Limited access to formal dining options: In some areas, street food may be the only available option due to a lack of formal restaurants or dining establishments.
  7. Taste and variety: Street food offers a diverse range of flavors and options, often reflecting local cuisine and specialties.
  8. Social gatherings: Street food vendors often serve as community gathering points, fostering social connections and a sense of belonging.

While street food persists due to these factors, it’s important to note that it also raises concerns about food safety, hygiene, and public health, as our investigation reveals.

Lagos for example, is renowned for its vibrant street food scene, offering an overabundance of mouthwatering dishes that attract locals and travelers alike. From swallows to jollof rice, sizzling suya to mouth-watering akara, fruits and vegetables, the options seem endless as the city’s streets are lined with vendors offering a plethora of culinary delights. Yet, amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, questions linger about the safety of these roadside treats.

Food safety (food hygiene) is used as a scientific method describing the handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness. According to World Health Organization (WHO) first ever global estimates of foodborne diseases, the risk of foodborne diseases is most severe in low- and middle-income countries, linked to preparing food with unsafe water; poor hygiene and inadequate conditions in food production and storage; lower levels of literacy and education; and insufficient food safety legislation or implementation of such legislation.

A typical roadside street food joint in Lagos. Lagos, June 15th, 2024. PC: Ojiehanor.

Residents Struggles with Risk of Foodborne Diseases

In Nigeria, over 200,000 people die from foodborne illness annually according to report. Unsafe food containing pathogenic bacteria, viruses, helminths, or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhea to cancers.

Foodborne diseases can cause short-term symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (commonly referred to as food poisoning), but can also cause longer-term illnesses, such as cancer, kidney or liver failure, brain and neural disorders. These diseases may be more serious in children, pregnant women, and those who are older or have a weakened immune system according to WHO report.
In a city where the rhythm of life never ceases and the streets teem with activities, the decision to indulge in street food becomes a personal calculus of risk versus reward. For Fatima Ibrahim and countless others like her, the choice is not merely about satisfying hunger but about safeguarding their well-being in a city where the stakes are high and the consequences dire.
Just like Fatima, speaking with other residents, a common sentiment emerged regarding the risky nature of consuming street food prepared without proper hygiene.

Mrs. Adebayo, expressed her fears, stating that: “While the convenience and affordability of street food are undeniable, I constantly worry about the potential health risks associated with it. Cases of food poisoning are not uncommon, and many of us live in fear of falling ill after consuming these delicacies.”

Similar apprehensions were echoed by Mr. Seun Ajala. In his words, he said “As much as I enjoy the flavours of street food especially in the evening like this when I close from work and very hungry, I’m always cautious of hygiene standards,” he confessed. “The conditions in which the food is prepared and served leave much to be desired, raising serious doubts about its safety, but I have no choice, so I just have to eat.”

A Nurse and Paramedic, Bukola Okusanya, shared that street food can pose health risks due to poor hygiene, inadequate food safety practices, and the potential for contamination.
“Eating street food without proper hygiene can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid fever, often caused by common bacteria like Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacteriosis” she explained.
“These illnesses can lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and even death in severe cases. Additionally, street food may lack nutritional information, vary in ingredient quality, and contribute to excessive calorie intake, leading to health issues like cardiovascular problems, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and liver disease,” she added.

Many Enjoy the Feeling Despite the Risks
In a city where time is always of the essence and convenience is king, street food offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban living. It’s a chance to slow down, if only for a moment, and savour the simple pleasures that bring people together.

For Mr. Adegoke, he affirmed that “Honestly, it’s the taste. There’s nothing quite like the flavour of street food, you know? And besides, it’s convenient. After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is cook. Street food is a quick and affordable option that never disappoints. Of course, safety is always in the back of my mind, but I try not to think about it too much. I figure as long as I stick to vendors I trust and avoid anything that looks questionable, I should be fine. It’s a risk I’m willing to take for the sake of a good meal.”

“I grew up eating street food. There’s a comfort in the familiar flavours, the sights and sounds of the street vendors. Yes, I’m aware of the concerns about food safety, but I’ve never let that stop me from enjoying my favorite dishes. I trust certain vendors that I’ve been going to for years, ones that I know take pride in their cleanliness and the quality of their ingredients. Of course, I’m cautious, I always make sure to wash my hands before eating, and I avoid anything that looks somewhat suspicious, but overall, the joy of eating street food outweighs any potential risks” says Victoria Adedoyin.

Tunde Ogunlesi likewise, expressed his concerns about hygiene and food safety, but considers street food as a godsend and pocket friendly. “As a student on a tight budget, street food is a godsend. It’s cheap, and it’s readily available. I know there are concerns about hygiene and food safety, but honestly, I’ve been eating street food for years. Besides, there’s a certain reality to street food that you just can’t replicate elsewhere, but at the end of the day, the risk is worth it for a satisfying meal on a student budget.”

Food Safety Practices Amongst Street Food Vendors

Some of the factors identified as contributing to foodborne outbreaks in Nigeria include methods of cooking; poor food practices such as inadequate refrigeration, prolonged handling, and improper reheating of cooked food; and food contamination by commercial or household food handlers due to an unhygienic environment.

In Lagos, where street food is an integral part of daily life, the risk of foodborne illnesses is particularly pronounced. Dr. Bukola Adeyemi, a Food and Nutrition expert, explained that more than half of those making street food, practice poor hygiene, which makes it unsafe for consumption. “Often times the food are exposed causing flies to perch on it” she noted.
She further explained that most street food are high in sodium, and any food that is high in sodium is not advisable because it can lead to hypertension. In her words: “Most of these street foods are also gotten from refined process, and they are high in sugar, because they want to make it sweet so that you can come back and eat again, and that is obviously not too good for our health. However, there are some street foods that may be okay, like roasted plantain. They did not add anything, it was just roasted. But the issue now is that it is exposed most of the time, people come from different places and touch it, whereas the hand is not clean, so they bring in germs into what someone else is going to eat, and those who are selling it do not pay extra attention to that. So, some of it is not about the food, if it is good or bad, for example, boiled corn, but it’s about the hygienic practices of those selling it,” she added.

Speaking with Mrs. Adesuwa, she expressed her worries about consuming street food. “While the flavours are enticing, I often worry about the cleanliness of the preparation areas and the quality of the ingredients used. It’s a gamble I’m not always willing to take, especially with my family’s health at stake, that’s why I don’t do street foods, especially in Lagos.”

However, Mrs. Olumide, a fruit seller, defended the hygiene practices of street vendors, asserting, “We take pride in maintaining cleanliness and ensuring that our food is safe for consumption. However, challenges such as inadequate sanitation facilities and limited access to clean water pose significant hurdles to some street vendors but not all.”

Mrs. Babatunde, a food vendor, shields the integrity of her trade. “I take pride in the cleanliness of my space and the freshness of my ingredients. My loyal customers trust me because they know I prioritize hygiene and quality above all. Before I put table here, I usually sweep it and cover my cooler properly.”

Consumer Health and Food Vendors Responsibility

As the prevalence of foodborne diseases remains a pressing health concern, the duty of street food vendors in safeguarding consumer health has become increasingly significant. Professionals in the food industry affirm that vendors have a responsibility of protecting consumers health. By adhering to proper hygiene practices, using quality ingredients, and participating in educational programs, vendors can significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and protect the well-being of their customers.

Adebayo Olatunji, a professional chef, explained that: “Street food vendors have a critical responsibility in protecting consumer health. The food they serve can either contribute to the well-being of their customers or pose serious health risks if not handled properly. Therefore, it is imperative for vendors to follow proper hygiene practices, such as regularly washing their hands, using clean utensils, and wearing gloves when handling food. Additionally, they should ensure that their cooking environments are clean and that food is stored at the correct temperatures to prevent contamination.”

Olatunji added that vendors should adopt some specific practices to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. “Vendors should focus on several key practices. Firstly, they must be diligent about personal hygiene, which includes washing hands frequently and keeping their workspaces clean. Secondly, they should use high-quality, fresh ingredients and avoid items that are spoiled. Good should be cooked thoroughly to kill any harmful bacteria. Moreover, vendors should be educated about cross-contamination, learn that they should use separate utensils and surfaces for raw and cooked foods.”

Food buyers, amidst economic crisis, inflation, and lack of regulation and enforcement are forced to make street food that are available desirable as poor governance bite deep into the pockets of Nigerians. Lagos, June 15th, 2024. PC: Ojiehanor.

Olakitan Olayinka Oluwabunmi, a food vendor and CEO of Yinka Olopo, shared her insights on improving hygiene among food vendors to reduce the incidence of foodborne diseases. According to Ms. Oluwabunmi, education is the key to enhancing vendors’ practices.

“Firstly, for someone to adjust or correct a behaviour, they need to be enlightened about its importance, advantages, disadvantages, effects, and causes,” she explained. “For vendors to work on reducing the causes of foodborne diseases, they must understand what foodborne diseases are, their effects, what can lead to them, and their impact on the body. Once they grasp this, you can start guiding them on how to avoid these diseases and improve their knowledge.”
Oluwabunmi emphasized the need for thorough education and training for street food sellers. “To improve vendors’ hygiene, we need to educate them on what foodborne diseases are and their consequences on the body. Then we can teach them how to manage hygiene properly.”

She recounted an incident that highlighted the importance of proper hygiene practices. “I remember buying fish from a vendor who also sold fried potatoes. After serving a customer, she placed the fork on a dusty show glass and reused it without cleaning. Such overlooked practices matter significantly. Vendors should use nylon gloves, cover food properly, and maintain a clean environment.”

Oluwabunmi also stressed the importance of using quality ingredients and maintaining cleanliness in food preparation. “I ensure food safety by being picky with my groceries, buying fresh and quality ingredients, and washing vegetables thoroughly. I use proper dishwashing soap and keep the environment clean. It’s better to invest in quality to provide good nutrition and taste for customers.”

Government and Regulatory Oversight
In Nigeria, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) is tasked with regulating the safety and quality of food products. In 2019, NAFDAC rolled out a draft document for Food Hygiene Regulations.
As part of efforts to ensure food safety, the Lagos State Ministry of Health launched a food safety campaign. They said unsafe food poses global health threats, endangers everyone including infants, young children, pregnant women and the elderly among others, according to report.

To build an effective food safety system for Nigerians, the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) launched a Unified Food Safety Training Manuals for capacity building of food vendors, food handlers, food manufacturers and plethora of personnel in the entire food supply chain in the country.

The ministry noted that the development of the manual became necessary to address the gaps needed to strengthen Food Safety System at the Federal, State and LGAs levels, to develop a safe and reliable food supply chain from Farm-to-Table in ways that prevent food-borne illness.
In a statement, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) disclosed that the rising poor food safety practices and standards in Nigeria, has led to huge economic losses. They pointed out that some of the issues, which has led to poor food safety practices employed in the food supply chain include: the artificial ripening of fruits using unapproved agents such as calcium; the use of unapproved insecticide such as sniper for preservation; the use of containers contaminated with hazardous chemicals such as fertilizer bags for grains or chemical drums and jerry cans for food storage.

Dr. Chioma Okonkwo, a public health expert, emphasized the need for stronger regulatory measures as she confirmed that food safety is a public health priority and government play a fundamental role in developing controls and regulations. “The current regulatory framework lacks teeth, allowing substandard practices to thrive. We need robust enforcement mechanisms coupled with comprehensive training programs to ensure compliance and safeguard public health,” she said.

Despite being a staple of Nigerian culture, enforcement has been inconsistent, and monitoring food safety standards are often sporadic, allowing many vendors to operate with impunity. The lack of stringent regulations and oversight has raised concerns about the safety of these culinary delights. While street food vendors are an integral part of Nigeria’s culinary landscape, their informal nature and lax regulatory oversight pose significant risks to public health.

Bottom Line
As in most developing countries, meeting the WHO’s five key requirements for achieving safer food which includes:

Prevent contaminating food with pathogens spreading from people, pets, and pests.

Separate raw and cooked foods to prevent contaminating the cooked foods.

Cook foods for the appropriate length of time and at the appropriate temperature to kill pathogens.

Store food at the proper temperature.

Use safe water and safe raw materials.

Meeting these key 5 conditions have have been a struggle in Nigeria where basic amenities, particularly running water and robust sanitary units are lacking. The onus however, rests on citizens taking collective actions for a common healthier goal.



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