National Food Safety Week: Your cooking pot can contain poison | Sunday Observer

National Food Safety Week: Your cooking pot can contain poison

Food contamination is by no means a recent or emerging problem in Sri Lanka. Given the fact that the Colombo city alone boasts of over 1,000 food outlets, with the count steadily mounting every day, keeping tabs on them to ensure that they adhere to the basic prin ciples of food hygiene under the Food Hygiene Act, no doubt poses a mammoth task for food authorities. The fact that they are scattered in every nook and cranny of the city, slithering their way through narrow passages, in alleys usually reserved for garbage, can cause a giant headache for any Food Inspector following their dirty trail.

Yet, these tiny hole- in- the wall food outlets are not the only ones guilty of violating the law of serving food in a safe environment. Owners of wayside boutiques, cafes and small restaurants have also been hauled before courts following raids in Pettah, Kotahena, Dam Street and Wattala by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), according to recent reports.

The kind of contaminated food we find also gets stranger by the day. Just recently, a customer rushed to the nearest PHI after finding frog legs inside his vegetable bun which he had purchased from a leading city food outlet. Another customer was reported to have found the remains of a dead snail in her beef bun. Tiny stones and even grains of sand have also managed to find their way into our food.

The growing concern over these complaints has now prompted the Health Ministry to make an islandwide sweep of all unsafe food outlets, telling owners they should either clean up their act or lose their licences. To this end, the Ministry of Health, Nutrition, and Indigenous Medicine implemented a National Food Safety Week from November 28 to December 3.

During the program, which was implemented in all MOH Divisions across the country, health officials inspected school canteens, eateries serving food to long distance bus drivers, and office canteens. In addition, they checked on how far the Traffic Lights Colour Code for drinks had been implemented by soft drink manufacturers.

Director General, Health Services, (DGHS) Dr. Palitha Mahipala also informed that a circular in this regard had been issued to the Provincial and Divisional Health Service Directors, Municipal Council and Urban Council Medical Health Officers (MHO), and other MHOs, while inspections would be carried out by the Medical Health Officers and the Public Health Inspectors. Legal action will be taken against law violators, he warned.

Traffic Light Colour Coding

However, while the Food Safety Week initiated by the Health Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne is commendable, health authorities in charge of implementing it are likely to run into problems, such as, gaps in legislation and the absence of a proper data collection system and shortage of food inspectors (there are only around 2,000 to my knowledge.) Many of the food inspectors although recently trained to detect signs of contaminated food , are also still not knowledgeable enough in detecting, not just food contamination but whether the drinks served, including tea, contain too much sugar exceeding the minimum advocated by health authorities.

The Traffic Lights Colour Code which has been in operation since August this year, was introduced to fill that gap. “It uses the same colours of the traffic lights – red (for danger) amber and green (the last is the safest) to help customers to make an informed choice when buying a ready made drink from a supermarket. We expect all soft drink companies to use this system on their labels or else face a penalty”, Director General Health Services, Dr P.G. Mahipala said.

Diabetic epidemic

Explaining further, he said, it was a step to end the diabetic epidemic now gripping the country. “It is now mandatory for all sugary products to display colour codes according to the sugar content percentage they use. If the sugar content is over 11g per 100ml the colour of the label should be red, if it is between 2g to 11g it should be amber or yellow/amber and if below 2g the label should be in green to indicate it is safe to drink. Colour coding tells you at a glance if food items have high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Red means the food or drink is high in a particular nutrient and warns the public to consume such foods with due precautions. Amber indicates that one may consume such foods in medium amounts. Green signifies the healthiest choice. Following this Code will help control the spread of non- communicable diseases,” he added.

Aside from how much sugar a bottle of drink should contain, the big question is, how much we Lankans consume on a daily basis. Non Communicable Diseases Unit ( NCD) sources cited the World Health Organisation (WHO) which had laid guidelines for this, that the maximum amount of sugar a person should take is 30 grams per day (5 teaspoons), in order to control diabetes and other NCDs. However, some limited studies have shown that the average Sri Lankan consumes about 60 grams of sugar a day- far in excess of the WHO limit. Taken over a long period, with an increased intake of salt, could account for about 70 percent of the nation’s death,” sources said. But, what about other injurious ingredients such as chemicals and preservatives found in ready made drinks sold to all those patronizing small wayside boutiques in congested parts of the city?

Responding to likely chemicals and preservatives that could be found in these drinks, Director National Poisons Information Unit, National Hospital, Dr Waruna Gunathilake cites the 2011 circular under the Food Act which refers to chemicals such as, Ethereal, Ethephon, Chlroethyl and Phosophonic Acid, used to artificially ripen fruits. “Excess use of chemicals or the use of chemicals below the required level can cause allergies to the consumer,” he warns.

He further noted, the use of Calcium Carbide to ripen the fruits artificially has been banned in many countries. ”Calcium carbide once sprayed on fruits could react and produce cyanide,” he warned. Dr Gunathilake also poses the question: “Why are we targeting only sugary drinks?. Why not cereals, milk substitutes, biscuits and other foods that are also high in sugar content”?.

He said, NCDs were the result of a combination of components and factors. “When people think about Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) they think sugar is the only killer component that causes these chronic long term diseases. I believe, one must also take into consideration foods that cause high Lipid Profile and High Blood Pressure,” he said.

“We need to look at the bigger picture, as NCDs are the result of a combination of components and factors,” he pointed out. He also noted that most containers of fruit juices simply state that the product contains so many calories per serving. “But, how does the average consumer count the calories in a small mini pack of juice when all he wants is to drink it and go? The display of nutritional information is another weak area we need to look at”.

Colour Coding for Food items?

When we asked food officials if there was a proposal to introduce a colour code for food sold to the public, they agreed it was a long felt need. But, many problems would have to be discussed with stakeholders and consumers before they could come up with the ideal solution.

“Due to the surge in fast foods and take away junk meals, which serve food high in starch, fat and oil, as well as sugar, this would be an ideal solution for consumers wanting to make an informed choice. But, how do you draw the line when some of the food is served straight from the pot to the plate? The amount of salt and sugar that is used in a bun or a small cake or the amount of fat in a small pastry is also not always easy to measure,” they said.

What about Energy bars said to enhance physical activity?

“Avoid them, if you are a pre-diabetic. They contain sugar and glucose which could send your blood sugar levels soaring,” a Diabetic specialist warned.

So is there an alternative ?

“Eat fresh fruits rather than in juice form. Made into juice form it will result in very high sugar content,” a nutritionist said. A member of the public to whom we posed the question of unhealthy food and sugary drinks made an interesting comment.

Drawing attention to the huge bill boards and cutouts of instant meals, like hamburgers and carbonated drinks, he asked, “ Isn’t there a law that prevents such unethical advertising of beverages and food? How is it that you find them at every school match with some even printing their logos on certificates distributed to the winners during a sponsored match”.

What do readers think?

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