February 24, 2024

Unsafe food, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), contributes to poor health, including impaired growth and development, micronutrient deficiencies, noncommunicable and infectious diseases, and mental illness. Globally, one in ten people are affected by foodborne illness each year. Antonina Mutoro, nutrition researcher at the African Population and Health Research Center, explains what causes food contamination and how we can reduce the risk of disease.

Globally, one in ten people are affected by foodborne illness each year. (Unsplash)

Access to healthy and nutritious food is a basic human right that many do not enjoy, in part due to food contamination. This is defined as the presence of harmful chemicals and microorganisms in food that can cause disease. According to the WHO, food contamination affects about one in ten people globally and causes about 420,000 deaths a year.

Food contamination can be: Physical: Foreign bodies in food can potentially cause injury or carry disease-causing microorganisms. Pieces of metal, glass and stones can be choking hazards or cause cuts or damage to teeth. Hair is another physical contaminant.

Biological: Living organisms in food, including microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, and protozoa), parasites (weevils, beetles, and rats), or parasites (worms), can cause disease.

Chemical: Substances such as soap scum, pesticide residues, and toxins produced by microorganisms such as aflatoxins can lead to poisoning.

What are the most common causes of food contamination? The most common cause of food contamination is poor food handling. This includes not washing your hands at the appropriate times before eating and preparing food, after using the bathroom, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

Using dirty utensils, not washing fruits and vegetables with clean water, and storing raw and cooked foods in the same place can also be harmful. Sick people should not handle food. And you should avoid consuming undercooked foods, especially meat.

Bad agricultural practices can also contaminate food. This includes the heavy use of pesticides and antibiotics or growing fruit and vegetables using contaminated soil and water. The use of poorly composted or raw animal manure or slurry is also harmful.

Fresh foods can lead to a number of diseases. In Kenya, for example, contamination of meat, fruit and vegetables with human waste is relatively common. This is attributed to the use of contaminated water to wash food. Flies carrying contaminants can also directly transfer fecal matter and bacteria to plant leaves or fruit.

Street foods are another common source of food contamination. These foods are widely consumed in low- and middle-income countries because they are cheap and easily accessible.

What are the signs you’ve eaten contaminated food?

Biological and chemical substances are the most common food contaminants. They account for more than 200 foodborne illnesses, including typhoid, cholera and listeriosis. Foodborne illnesses usually present as diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pains.

In severe cases, foodborne illnesses can lead to neurological disorders, organ failure and even death. It is therefore advisable to seek immediate medical attention if you begin to experience symptoms such as persistent diarrhea and vomiting after eating or drinking.

Children under the age of five are the most vulnerable to foodborne illnesses. They carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden. A child’s immune system is still developing and cannot fight infections as effectively as an adult.

In low- and middle-income countries, decreased immunity in children can also occur due to malnutrition and frequent exposure to infections due to poor hygiene and sanitation, including lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Also, when children are sick, they tend to have a poor appetite.

This results in a reduced food intake. Coupled with increased nutrient losses through diarrhea and vomiting, this can lead to a cycle of infection and malnutrition and, in extreme cases, death.

Pregnant women and people with reduced immunity due to illness or age are equally vulnerable and, therefore, special care should be taken to prevent foodborne illness among these groups.

Foodborne illnesses also have negative economic impacts, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The World Bank estimates that treating these diseases in these countries costs more than $15 billion a year. So it’s important to have preventative strategies in place.

Food contamination can be prevented through simple measures:

*Wash your hands at key times (before preparing, serving or eating meals; before feeding children, after using the toilet or after passing stools)

*wear protective and clean clothing when preparing food

*Store food properly

*Wash raw foods with clean water

*Keep raw and cooked foods separate

*Use separate utensils for meats and food intended to be eaten raw.

Good agricultural practices, such as using clean water and using approved pesticides in recommended amounts, can help prevent food contamination.

Food vendors also need to be trained in food safety and provided with clean water and adequate sanitation.

As part of the research team at the African Population and Health Research Center, I am working on the Healthy Food Africa project, which aims to enhance food security in informal urban settlements by promoting food security. In Kenya, the project is working closely with the Nairobi county government to develop a food safety training manual for street food vendors. This will greatly contribute to improving food security in the city.

This story was published from a news agency feed with no text edits. Only the title has been changed.

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