Roadside food vendors operating under unhygienic conditions still abound in Accra in spite of the awareness of food hygiene practices.
While a few try to adhere to basic hygiene rules, many food vendors still prepare and sell cuisines along stinky choked gutters and other filthy areas full of flies and insects with careless abandon.
The unhygienic practices are mainly found in the densely populated urban areas and market centres.
This year, the Accra Metropolitan Authority (AMA) alone has sent more than 30 food vendors to court for selling under unhygienic conditions and not having health certificates.
Visits by the Daily Graphic to some wayside food vendors on the streets of Kaneshie, Odorkor, Adabraka, Nima, Maamobi, Teshie, Nungua, Madina, Adenta and other places in the capital showed that the issue was not only about where the food was sold but also where they were prepared and packaged for the market.
While the unhygienic conditions were pervasive in areas such as Abuja in Adabraka, Kaneshie, Odorkor, Adabraka, Nima, Maamobi, Russia and Sukura, areas such as Cantonments, East Legon, Airport Residential Area and Dansoman had some good stories, with Adenta, Madina, Osu, Teshie, Nungua, among others, having cases of both scenarios, depending on the suburb in those communities.
Abuja, a market on the Graphic Road, which served as one of the wholesale points where mainly rice and stew, and plantain chips are prepared for retailers, was a typical example of an insanitary environment.
The sanitation of the area was poor, with wastewater running freely around, flies interacting with the stinky environment and the ladles and pans containing the food, raising questions about the consumption and safety of such food.
The Dean, School of Biological Sciences of the University of Ghana (UG), Professor Matilda Steiner-Asiedu, in an interview on the safety of food, said people who bought on the street were just lucky to be alive.
According to her, the way food was handled on the street and corner shops before they were sold left a lot of bacteria on them which posed a serious health threat to consumers.
Prof. Steiner-Asiedu said at present, it was becoming the norm that foodstuffs no longer met the strict standards of preparation and handling as they were not properly stored, while hygiene standards were not adhered to.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates deaths arising from harmful foods to be up to two million a year around the world.
Prof. Steiner-Asiedu, who is a nutritionist, said the country currently faced numerous food safety challenges such as microbial contamination, aflatoxin contamination, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in smoked fish and meats, mercury in fish, pesticide residues in grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits; food adulteration, and misuse of food additives, all of which caused diseases.
According to the nutritionist, one might not even know where the food we ate came from, saying with the widespread illegal mining and use of chemicals in the soil, food products were often contaminated from the soil or the farm.
Prof. Steiner-Asiedu said most foods were prepared in unhygienic ways. “Unfortunately, most of our food vendors have less knowledge in food hygiene and safety and the consequences of spoiled food, contaminated foods or food poison on the health of the consumer, the business of the food vendor and the state at large,” she said.
The UG School of Biological Sciences Dean added that food safety was compromised by most small food joint operators in Accra, but the majority of the population patronised those food joints because of several factors such as affordability and availability.
In Ghana, the actual burden of food borne illnesses is unknown. However, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the World Bank in 2007 estimated that one in every 40 Ghanaians suffered serious food borne illness per year as 420,000 cases were reported with an annual death rate of 65,000.
According to a Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) report of 2006, 297,104 people reported to health facilities with food and hygiene-related illnesses with associated 90,692 deaths and productivity loss of approximately 594,279 days which is 19,809 months.
Prof. Steiner-Asiedu said the worst foods on the street were roasted plantain, fried yam, cooked rice or waakye with its accompanying salads and spaghetti, among others, and the least expected foods she said were the tea prepared on the streets.
She said people did not attach much concern to the tea and koko sold on the streets because most often they were hot but one should be careful with the cups and bowls used in serving as they were not rinsed properly.
“The water they use to clean the cups and bowls is never changed. They use the same water over and over again and then in the end the water gets contaminated,” Prof. Steiner-Asiedu observed.
With regard to the roasted plantain sellers, the nutritionist advised that people should only buy from those who used the food turners and not those who used their hands.
She explained that some people sneezed into their hands and only cleaned them in their dresses.
According to the nutritionist, most of the sellers used the same hands to collect money which most often were dirty and had bacteria on them but continued to turn the plantain or yam with the same hands without washing them.
Attending nature’s call
As to selling of food in general on the street, she quizzed: “Have you ever wondered where they go when they want to urinate or visit the toilet?”
She said most of them did not have any proper place of convenience and, therefore, what they did was left to one’s imagination.
Also, in this day and age of viruses, most street vendors were seen talking over the food they sold and through that one could easily pick up diseases such as typhoid and serious infections, Prof. Steiner-Asiedu pointed out.
“For us in Ghana and Africa, it is just by grace,” she reiterated.
The nutritionist advised people to microwave food they bought from outside before eating them.
She called on people to look out for red signs when buying food, adding, “do not use your money to buy disease.”
A fried rice vendor at Awoshie, Joseph Utam, said he knew about the safety rules that applied to cooking for people but because of the pressure that came with the job, it was difficult to keep to the rules.
He, however, stated that keeping the environment neat was a must, which he would try to do.
Another vendor, Patience Ansah, stated that her eatery had done everything to keep the environment and surroundings neat because it attracted customers and that it was an important feature in food vending.
When asked why they did not have a hair net on, she explained that she had provided her workers with some of the nets but they were worn out and she was planning to get them new ones.
Ms Ansah further revealed that her workers had been vaccinated against Hepatitis B and had also done blood tests to certify that they did not have any disease.
"We did a laboratory test some weeks ago but we have not had our results yet. It’s something we do every year and this year is no exception," she said.
A kenkey vendor, who gave her name only as Ataa, said she was very much aware of keeping the environment clean.
She added that keeping the environment clean was a priority for her as it attracted customers.
She, however, stated that she had no hair net on because she was tired.
"I don't have a hair net but I do well to cover my hair with a scarf but I'm tired of wearing it and the sun is hot so I took it off," Ataa said.
However, Grace Ashong, another food vendor at Kaneshie, said although she did her best to keep the environment clean, she was not aware it was mandatory for food vendors to be vaccinated and tested every year.
“We do wear the hair nets, the last thing we don’t want is for customers to find hair strands in their food. But, we didn’t know we have to be vaccinated. It’s my first time hearing this,” she said.
When the Daily Graphic spoke to some patrons, many of them stated that in searching for food to buy, they looked out for places that were generally neat and offered good services.
“I generally look for places that are neat. The only problem is you won’t get it 100 per cent because you know Accra and the issues with sanitation. But I do look out for neat places at the very least,” George Bruce, a patron said.
He added that he was aware that food vendors were required to wear hair nets but was not aware they were supposed to be vaccinated against certain illnesses before they could sell.
Another customer, Janet Wiafe, stated that in buying food, she was very particular about the neatness of the environment.
She, however, stated that she was not really bothered by the wearing of hair net.
Ephraim Larbi, who was purchasing waakye when the team caught up with him, said although he would naturally look for a clean place to purchase food, most food vendors with very neat places sold food at very exorbitant prices.
“I doubt anybody will intentionally buy from a dirty place. But the thing is, this is Accra, and the living conditions here are what make some people buy from just about anywhere,” he stated.
Accra Metropolitan Assembly
The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), Gilbert Ankrah, told the Daily Graphic that the assembly had been enforcing the food hygiene bye-laws to ensure that food vendors sold food in hygienic environments.
He said the assembly had trained a number of food handlers on how to select healthy food on the market, prepare food under hygienic conditions and also screen them medically to ensure that they were healthy to operate the food business.
Mr Ankrah indicated that the assembly was also strict in ensuring that food establishment premises, such as hotels, restaurants, chop bars and drinking spots where food was prepared, operated under hygienic conditions.
“AMA also issues warning notices to people who prepare food under unhygienic conditions to warn them against the act. This year alone, we have sent more than 30 food vendors to court for selling under unhygienic conditions and not having a health certificate. We have also made some arrests on those who cause smoke nuisance,” he said.
Mr Ankrah added that those found culpable were likely to pay a penalty of not less than 100 penalty units and not more than 150 penalty units, or would go to prison for between three and six months or both. One penalty unit is GH¢12.
“Currently, two food vendors are in the Nsawam Prison for flouting the AMA food hygiene bye-laws. They are spending three months there,” he added.
He advised food vendors to contact the environmental offices of assemblies within their jurisdictions to register and go through the right processes to engage in the sale of food.