It is not unusual to see people queuing to buy akara (fried bean cake) or buns from food vendors operating by the roadside on a Monday morning. It is also likely that you will find them returning to the same vendor to buy lunch or dinner.
Roadside food joints are common in Nigeria. Some people may argue that these joints have saved them from the pangs of hunger on a few occasions. But we know that in many parts of the country the operators hardly prepare their food in hygienic conditions.
Although they are patronised by many Nigerians, especially those living in urban areas where home-made meals are reserved for weekends, eating food from the ‘mamaput’ or ‘bukateria’ may expose you to food-borne diseases, such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea.
Family health physician, Dr. Austin Olopade, warns that since there is no law regulating their operations, many roadside food sellers compromise standards and use adulterated food items to prepare their meals.
Olopade notes that many food joints can be found in dirty and messy surroundings, a situation that increases the risk of food contamination.
He said, “No agency or organisaton that is recognised by government regulates these food vendors. They are not even supposed to be there in the first place. So they are operating at will. They sell food beside open canals, gutters and blocked drainages where deadly bacteria and microbes thrive.
“They don’t store or handle food properly. They don’t preserve their food properly. For instance, since they don’t have access to potable water, they use contaminated water to cook and prepare raw foods. We must know that a major way to get infected with typhoid is by eating contaminated food.”
The physician says that this ugly habit must be nipped in the bud, as many Nigerians have almost lost their lives after eating food prepared and sold in unhygienic conditions.
Olopade explains, “When you suffer from food poisoning two things happen, you begin to purge uncontrollably, you lose body fluids and electrolytes and eventually become dehydrated. If you don’t go to the hospital quickly, you may faint or collapse. That is a case of severe diarrhoea. Many children and adults have died from diarrhoea. Food is the easiest medium of contamination.”
Experts state that once the safety of a food product is physically or genetically compromised, it should be regarded as a poison.
Food analyst, Dr. Ronald Odewale, says any food, food product or meal whose composition has been damaged either through the process of preparation or storage can be poisonous to the body.
Odewale says that although many people do not see food as something that could cause harm or cut their life short, food poisoning is a leading cause of gastro-intestinal diseases and other damages that could reduce the quality of the affected person’s life.
He states, “To a layman, we will say ‘safe food’ is anything that is eaten and does not endanger life. Yet, food safety is something we must take seriously every day. Food endangers your life when it contains dangerous substances or toxins that are capable of wreaking havoc on your health. That is why we must watch it.
“For example, many of these food vendors go to the market in search of rotten tomatoes or pepper to prepare their soup because they are cheaper. This is dangerous, as you are feeding your body with toxins. We cannot treat our mouths like a dustbin that accepts anything thrown into it.”
Odewale notes that food can be poisoned by biological, chemical or physical agents; while it can also be contaminated through man-made activities or other environmental factors.
The expert lists man-made activities as including the use of food dyes and colouring, addition of preservatives and chemicals to some processed foods, and under-processing of certain food items such as garri (cassava flour), most of which are common among these unregulated food vendors.
“Many foods in the market can be poisoned with or without the consumer’s knowledge. When they sell akara to you in newspapers, it is with your knowledge. But when dye is added to palm oil, Red Six (a chemical) is added to suya, or potassium bromate is added to bread, that is a form of deceit that goes on every day, especially in Nigeria where regulations and policy on food safety are lacking.
“We must know that it is dangerous to patronise any business that is regulated.” he explains.
Just as the experts have hinted, roadside food may be pocket-friendly, taste better than some processed foods sold in fast food restaurants, yet they may pose a grave danger to your health.
To avoid the temptation of eating in such hideous places, try and eat some home-made breakfast before you hit the road in the morning and also locate a budget friendly restaurant where they observe basic forms of hygiene when it comes to food preparation.