Ignatius Mabasa Shelling The Nuts
What is the public health risk if there is no proper monitoring and inspection for cleanliness in handling and proper storage of food? In short, I am saying how safe is our food?
Having grown up with my grandmother kumusha, I know that it is not possible to eat 100 percent clean food.
Before boreholes, we fetched water from open wells where one could see frogs ducking and diving in the water.
At one time a visiting young relative refused to drink the water because of the frogs. We also had problems with cockroaches, weevils, rats, mice and other pests wanting a share of our food.
People in the rural areas don’t throw away their milk, mahewu or beer just because they found a cockroach or a fly.
Food is just too valuable to be thrown away. One man in my village was known for collecting and eating chickens that would have been killed by snakes from fellow villagers.
Yet, kumusha is a completely different world, and most decisions not to throw away food that has been contaminated are based on scarcity, poverty and the need for survival.
I have moved away from kumusha, I am now a resident of Harare, a supposedly developed city. I therefore cannot accept anyone making a decision to serve me contaminated food — especially if they call themselves a registered company or a small to medium enterprise that has made me pay for the food.
I know that in America, food manufacturing companies are permitted to have a certain amount of dirty stuff.
For example, according to the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publication titled Food Defect Levels Handbook, apple juice may contain rat and mouse hairs – as long as they are not more than 20 in a 500g container.
The handbook goes on to list other acceptable amounts of things like insects, fruit fly eggs and rat droppings. Yet, what is important to note is that there is a limit. In Zimbabwe while we have the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture and local councils looking after our food, I wonder whether they have their own acceptable food defect levels?
Do they have systems in place to monitor what is happening in some rat-infested backyard food factories?
For which products do they conduct E coli tests to determine if there is no “faecal contamination” of food?
What is the public health risk if there is no proper monitoring and inspection for cleanliness in handling and proper storage of food? In short, I am saying how safe is our food? Why am I saying all this? It is because I found excrement in a pack of a popular maputi brand. I was disgusted and angry. I was angry because I have encountered weird objects before in other maputi brands and I had to stop buying the brands. Yet, individual boycotting of certain dirty maputi brands is not going to be a solution, because the problem of contaminated food is a public health matter. I don’t think Zimbabwe has clear and efficient food control systems. We have too many backyard operations and even big names in food manufacturing who have no clue about proper food handling, standards and quality control.
It seems anybody can cook their food anywhere and anyhow, and package it the way they want, and sell it to the unquestioning public. Recently in Mbare I saw women who do early morning rounds selling mashed potatoes from 25 litre plastic buckets. No one knows the conditions under which that food would have been prepared.
One day while visiting a friend in Graniteside, I was shocked by what I saw at a backyard “factory” where they blow maputi. They use a dirty tin shack, and when they blow their maputi, the popped maize gets strewn all over, and then the workers sweep it from the floor into plastic packets. The workers have no masks, no gloves except some tatty dustcoats.
Sometimes when they walk, they step on the maize with their dirty shoes! When I challenged the employees, they laughed and said — “Ndiyo indigenisation mudhara!” I told them that inini this is not the indigenisation I want. Indigenisation yetsvina! Indigenisation does not mean being exempt from doing things properly.
This other time, I was having a chat with friends and munching away my maputi when suddenly I chewed something that crackled and sent a searing pain to my molar tooth such that my jaw was numb with pain. It must have scrapped the enamel coating from my tooth because for the next couple of days, my tooth could not chew even soft foods like bread. When I excused myself to go and spit out, as well as investigate what the object I had chewed was, I was shocked to discover sharp pieces a tough but brittle type of plastic.
I was very fortunate that the sharp splinters of the plastic did not pierce my gums, tongue or pallet.
The plastic looked dark blue in colour and upon close inspection, I observed some clotted dirty brownish stuff on it. The brownish stuff looked like clotted blood! I was so upset and tried to track the manufacturers of this maputi product and discovered that it was some hopeless backyard setup in one of the high-density suburbs. This is not the first time I have encountered nauseating objects in maputi products. And maybe it is a sign that I should now stop eating maputi. The other time, I found a cigarette butt and up to now I fail to understand the why and the wherefore of a cigarette stub in a packet of maputi.
Someone once said to me, you complain about these mysterious objects — the truth of the matter is Africans are very superstitious and some of the things that they do in order to boost their businesses are bizarre and outrageous. In a bid to try and enhance non-enterprising business ventures, some people use disgusting concoctions and herbal paraphernalia and serendipity. Such metaphysical means or herbal concoctions, which they clandestinely add to foodstuffs, they endanger the health and lives of a nation.
I have heard many stories of women who used dirty underwear in preparing food so that their businesses get high patronage. That is purely evil and nothing to do with business principles of sound management, costing and proper pricing to ensure one realizes a profit at the end of the day.
Generally, I know that good food handling and hygiene are issues that have always been a problem among our people. Food poisoning is a threat that always casts a shadow on our well-being.
It is a difficult problem to manage when we trust ordinary people to supply us with foodstuffs like peanut butter, ice-creams, freezits, drinks, sadza and stews, and even mineral water – that they prepare in their homes and other unhygienic places.
Close to a hundred people died in Mozambique after drinking a traditional beer. I am worried that with the indigenisation drive and the hard times that have hit most people, we will have more and more unethical and shocking food processing systems.
Even some of the foods that we eat may not be safe or suitable for human consumption. At a backyard garage that fixes cars in Harare, I heard for the first time sadza being served with pig intestines.
I have heard that the responsibility of food control is with many entities from Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture to local councils. Do all these entities sing from the same hymn page?
Who owns what process? Isn’t it that the saying goes, “that which is everybody’s business is nobody’s business?”
I understand that the current food control system in the country is being reviewed, and according to research by Felicitas Pswarayi, Anthony N. Mutukumira, Batsirai Chipurura, Benson Gabi and David J. Jukes, particular attention is given to the establishment and functions of a Food Control Authority of Zimbabwe which will replace the existing State authorities in the control and regulation of food. The proposed Food Control Bill 2011 has provisions for a coordinated approach to food safety, which would strengthen and improve food regulation in Zimbabwe. It includes proposals to bring together all inspection and analytical services under the supervision of one organisation.
Because of that, I am stopping eating maputi and other backyard-processed foods.