Saturday, 11 July 2015

Be careful what you eat

Few things are more important to consumers than food safety. We all eat and it doesn’t matter where the food we eat comes from, it has the potential to harm us.

The problem is not just poor food hygiene, it’s also an area full of charlatans. I’ve been told in the past that things would be better if we all ate a more traditional, perhaps even organic diet. But that’s simply not true. The danger from food poisoning is actually significantly greater from organically produced foods than ordinary food, mainly because of contamination with the E. coli bacteria found in manure, the organic food movement’s favorite fertilizer. On the other hand the risk posed to us by modern fertilizers is almost negligible because of the truly minute amounts that might be found on the food we buy. In fact the only area where organic food is superior to ordinary food is the price. Not for you and me, for the producers.

What’s much more important is the quality of food we buy and the manner in which it is transported, stored and sold to us.

That’s where the really bad news can be found. In the last few months our undercover mystery shoppers have discovered a wide range of food hygiene offences. I don’t just mean some items that are a day or two out of date, I mean pieces of chicken that were already turning slightly green, pork that was two weeks out of date and on one occasion, packets of frozen seafood mix that had expired 14 months beforehand. What’s worse with that last item was that you could tell from the amount of ice surrounding the seafood that the package had already defrosted and frozen at least once. That particular item was going to kill someone. When we alerted the store they were, to their credit, horrified and immediately tried to identify how it had happened. It turns out that the item was already over a year out of date when it was delivered to their store.

Over the last couple of months there has been widespread concern about Maggi noodles which had been withdrawn from sale in India in June. Many people wondered whether this affected us in Botswana as well.

This scare started when the Indian Food Safety and Standards Authority undertook tests that appeared to show that levels of lead in the noodles were much higher than permitted. Their report said that they "found presence of lead at 17.2 ppm". (“ppm” means "parts per million") whereas the permitted level in India is only 2.5 ppm.

If these figures are to be believed the level of lead found is about seven times higher than is thought acceptable. This is particularly worrying for parents because excess levels of lead have been associated with learning and development difficulties in children.

However Nestlé, who manufacture these noodles, disagreed. They conducted their own tests which they say showed that the official results were wrong. They claim their results “show that lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that MAGGI noodles are safe to eat”. The authorities in India are now locked in a court battle with Nestlé arguing about whose results are correct and “issues of interpretation of the Food Safety and Standards Act”.

Following the Indian ban and after a consumer group made a complaint the Kenya Bureau of Standards also issued a warning about the noodles and they were subsequently removed from supermarket shelves in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. The US Food and Drug Administration also took samples to test and concern grew here in Botswana. People posted links to scare stories on Facebook and we were contacted by a range of newspapers and radio stations for advice on who consumers should believe and what we should do to protect ourselves.

Luckily for us in Botswana the problem doesn’t seem to affect us. The Maggi noodles we buy don’t come from the same source as the Indian ones. Also tests have since been done in Singapore, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada and the noodles, even ones imported from India, have been given the all clear.

So do people think we’re well protected in Botswana when it comes to food safety? We recently did a small survey on Facebook (yes, I admit it’s hugely unscientific) and asked members of the Consumer Watchdog group how well protected they felt they were. The news for the authorities is bleak. Only 1% said that they felt well protected. 80% said they felt either badly or very badly protected.

Of course surveys don’t mean reality, they just reflect perceptions but it’s still bad news if people don’t think they’re well protected. It means that the authorities aren’t communicating well enough on the work they do and the protections they offer us.

Part of the problem is that nobody really knows how widespread food poisoning is in Botswana. Doctors might be able to record and report such things to the authorities but that requires people to actually go to the doctor if they become unwell as a result of something they ate. But do they actually do that? I know I don’t and I suspect you don’t either but what about everyone else?

Again we asked our Facebook group how likely they would be to visit a doctor if they had a non-life-threatening case of food poisoning. Only 11% said they would be likely or very likely to consult a doctor. As you can work out 89% said they were unlikely or very unlikely. In fact 71% of them said they would be very unlikely to do so.

I think it’s fair to say that nobody knows how much food poisoning there is out there and how high the risk might be.

So the lesson remains simple. The best (and perhaps the only) person who can protect you against poor quality food is yourself.

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