Having lost so much to food poisoning in terms of time, money and wellness, many have come to understand that a seemingly small food safety mistake may have life-threatening consequences. Such is the case of Sheila, a mother of three:
Crawling to the bathroom, too weak to stand, she clutched her belly and tried desperately to hold on to her toddler who was barfing and pooping, but she could not maintain a firm grip. The little boy lying helplessly on the floor and too worn out to cry, was a shadow of himself. He was dehydrated and weak but could not be helped by the mother who was praying for someone to come in and take them both them back to the hospital. She didn’t have any strength left in her to change his diaper which dripped continuously with clear yellow fluid or clean his uncontrollable vomit. She had also been passing out water for faeces since she got up in the morning and had vomited until there was no strength left in her! They were alone at home; she needed to make a decision but passed out before that could happen. Strangely, that was the only time she felt good in the last 12 hours. When she came to, she tried to make sense of what was happening to her as she recounted the events of the day: Dr Emma said it was another case of food poisoning-she and her son had an episode about a month earlier. Another case of food poisoning? Was someone trying to kill her? She didn’t eat out yesterday and did not have any visitor. She had prepared and served breakfast single-handedly. Lunch was also made by her, dinner too!
So what could have gone wrong with her and her son? Then it hit her! As Dr Emma investigated the foods she ate and tried to compare with the previous incidence, they made some discoveries. On the first occasion, they had a meal of efo riro (vegetable sauce) and semolina. Although the other members of the house did eat the same thing, they did not come down with diarrhoea and or vomiting. They were just fine! This time around, it was okra soup they had for dinner. She usually cooks both meals with smoked fish which she purchases from the neighbourhood market. In both cases, she had taken a few bites of the smoked fish that was meant for preparing the dish and her son, had several little bites too. She usually does that when cooking with smoked fish as it is ready-to-eat and is a way of rewarding herself for being busy in the kitchen for such a long time. This time, her husband, who could not wait for the food to be ready because he had a flight to catch, asked for some smoked fish garnished with red pepper with a dash of salt to go with his garri (cassava flakes). The following morning, Everyone who ate the yummy smoked fish without further cooking became sick. Only the couple’s twin girls were exempted as they were busy with their imaginary friends in their play-tent while dinner was being prepared. They only ate the fish after it was properly cooked in the soup.
What did she do wrong?
She bought smoked fish from a retailer who displayed same along with raw frozen fish as shown in Image 1 of my last post. Juice from the uncooked fish dripped to the smoked fish which, supposedly, is a ready-to-eat product. Any number of pathogenic organisms could have been present in the smoked fish as a result of cross-contamination. And to unknowingly subject a child to such organisms could have dire consequences.
Allowing frozen fish to thaw on the display table is a no-no as harmful pathogens multiply rapidly under such conditions. Frozen fish should remain frozen until purchase.
A study carried out by scholars, Eze, Echezona and Uzodimma of the University of Nigeria Nsukka titled, ‘Isolation and identification of pathogenic bacteria associated with frozen mackerel fish in a humid tropical environment reveals just how serious the situation could be when we talk about pathogenic bacteria on fish. This is not meant to scare you but it is important to note that they found Staphylococcus aureus in 60% of the samples, Escherichia coli in 20% and Lactobacillus plantarum in 15% of the tested samples of frozen mackerel. Mean bacteria load of the isolates was 1.135×106, way higher than NAFDAC’s approved limit of 5.0×105. Isn’t that something?
This shows that consuming smoked fish that has been exposed to raw fish juice without adequate cooking could challenge one’s health or even be a threat to life.
The trend of displaying cooked and uncooked fish together on the same table or tray in the food market leads to cross-contamination must stop.
Smoked fish should be stored away in proper containers, while displaying a few. I know we like to feel our fish: we check, press, hand-weigh, compare… before making a purchase, but come on, we need to move up! We can develop a system where smoked fish is sorted according to sizes, pre-packaged, weighed and properly labelled. All you have to do at the point of purchase is check for freshness/spoilage.
The public needs to understand commercial food safety in terms of hazards and their control.
But how can we make this happen?
How can fish vendors know this unless they are told? Food safety education should be taken to the grassroots.
There should be enlightenment campaigns so fish vendors can know the dangers of this practice and desist from it.
Likewise, consumers need to start demanding for the right things. If a retailer discovers that you do not patronize her because of her unsafe display method, she will change for the better.
Until a regulation is made concerning this issue and until there is enough awareness to change the marketing style of our fish vendors, treat all smoked fish like raw. Cook thoroughly before consumption. Harmful bacteria cannot be seen without aid, so it is safe to err on the side of caution by handling such food as if illness-causing bacteria were present.
So much for fish, we shall be looking into the problem of antibiotic resistance in my next post. See you then.