Is the food we eat safe enough?

On the whole we can be assured that food safety in the country is not a cause for worry here – which is not the same thing as saying that it not a matter for concern

To live we must eat – that should sound pretty obvious, as we all know from our own experience that we cannot go without food for long. There are some people who like to say that they ‘live to eat’, that is, because they can afford to they go all out to have as much food – supposedly good — as they can and as often as they can. This is the opposite of ‘eat to live’. For health conscious people this is an axiom, but for hundreds of millions in the world eating to live is a major struggle. The spectrum for them varies from lack of sufficient food to the other extreme: famine.

Despite the reduction in absolute poverty in the world, the fact remains that there is a significant percentage of humanity, to be found in conflict or war zones, in ‘failed states’, or even under normal civilian conditions, who face a chronic situation of food insecurity. The most unfortunate among them are of course those who squarely are in a famine situation, and there are UN based and other international bodies that for many years have been involved in catering to their needs as best they can.

Some recent reports on food issues have prompted in me some reflections about our local situation. One incident was rather unusual, in that two persons who had eaten raw centipedes bought from a market in Guangzhou, China, developed a severe brain infection (meningitis) because the centipedes carried a virulent microbe.

The other from the UK, is about what is termed ‘holiday hunger’. An article in the Independent Online two days ago reported that of ‘657 secondary school teachers surveyed, nearly half confirmed children in their school had experienced holiday hunger’, with children returning to school ‘looking visibly less well nourished’. Further, ‘in the last three years the situation had either worsened (51 per cent) or stayed the same (26 per cent)’, and ‘the combined provision of food banks, charity/volunteer organisations and faith groups was insufficient to tackle holiday hunger’.

Concern was expressed about ‘the devastating effects of holiday hunger on children’s mental and physical wellbeing’, underlining that ‘such extensive poverty simply should not exist in a country with the fifth-largest economy’, as it ‘was having a significant impact on the learning of the pupils’.

In the US, according to CNN about two weeks ago, ‘Food-borne illness may be on the rise’. The news report began with, ‘One child drank apple cider at a Connecticut farm, another a glass of juice during a road trip in Oregon; later, both were rushed to emergency rooms as they struggled for their lives. A middle-aged woman became sick more than a decade ago after enjoying a salad at a banquet hosted by a California hotel; her debilitating symptoms continue to this day. A 17-year-old paid the ultimate price when he ate two hamburgers “with everything, to go” and died days later.’

These cases are ‘on the “Honor Wall” of Stop Foodborne Illness, the national nonprofit that represents and supports those who suffered a drastic consequence following the most ordinary act: eating’.

The statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a chill to me: ‘Food-borne illness hits one in six Americans every year… 48 million people get sick due to one or another of 31 pathogens (NB: harmful microbes). About 128,000 people end up in the hospital while 3,000 die annually.’

Since the population of the USA is about 326 million, this means that every year about 15% of the US population get food-borne illness; about 400 people per million get admitted, and 9 people per million die from food poisoning.

If we make a projection for Mauritius based on the US figures, then out of our population of about 1.27 million, about 190,000 people would have food-borne illness, over 400 people would need admission, and there would be about 10-12 deaths.

Fortunately for us, this estimate has never materialized. According to information I have received from a recently retired Senior Health Inspector of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life, until about 2012 after the passage of the Food Act about a decade earlier, there had been about 4 deaths from food poisoning. A couple of outbreaks had been traced to bugs in mayonnaise served in chicken fast food preparations, and in the icing on pastry. After 2012, there has not been any outbreak, and therefore neither admission nor death related to food-borne illness.

On the whole, therefore, we can be assured that food safety in the country is not a cause for worry here – which is not the same thing as saying that it not a matter for concern. In fact, it is a major public health concern, and ensuring our food safety is very high priority of the Public Health Division of the MOH, and the responsibility of the very efficient Communicable Disease Control Unit (CDCU) and the equally capable Health Inspectorate, despite the lack of manpower – and often of support from the policy maker – which limits the frequency of field visits that they would like to carry out so as to check on hygiene and sanitary conditions in food outlets.

We are fortunate too as regards food security. We have enough supplies throughout the year, both in terms of quality and quantity. A walk through any of the twice-a-week la foire (open market) across the island will confirm this – and all of us have been exchanging notes about the abundance and variety of vegetables, fruits and other food items that we have been choosing from these past weeks. On Wednesday last, I got myself two bundles of brede mouroume – for all of Rs 20!

Concern has rightly been expressed about pesticide residues in food. The latest report from Statistics Mauritius show a decline in the importation of pesticides, but this has to be interpreted in light of several factors related to our agricultural landscape, and the pursuit of ensuring safe levels of residues is a relentless and important one.

On the other hand, nutrition surveys conducted at specified intervals by MOH have shown that stunting – delayed growth of children – is not really a problem in Mauritius, confirming that we have no food insecurity. However, we have to be vigilant and we have to make sure that we maintain this status by taking all the decisions that are needed at all the levels required.

This encouraging news on the food safety front is a relief from the otherwise depressing headlines that shake our confidence in the country’s governance and its elite who ought to have been, but are alas not, role models to inspire our young generation. Some of whom, among others, have been exposed by the Lam Shang Leen Commission on the drug scourge in the country. But let us not lose hope for the country, for that’s the only redeeming element that we have…



* Published in print edition on 3 August 2018

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