On 24th August 2021, one of the most popular restaurants in Uganda allegedly served vermin infested milkshake to a client. The management of the restaurant dismissed the claims it termed 'malicious' and aimed at tarnishing its image. Whether the claim was true or blackmail, it left consumers thinking twice about food safety in Uganda.
The incident aroused angry emotions across social media, although the hype soon died out like all social media buzz. Never the less, it did bring to light an issue that deserves due attention. This manner of response to the incident raises a number of questions in my mind. How would another country have responded to the news? Would an immediate investigation have been launched into the case, preceded by a public report of the findings? How would have the committed customers of the establishment responded? Would they demand to know the truth or simply brush it off and move on with their daily lives? Would the people feel any sense of desire for accountability from the service provider?
We have seen several cases of community protests over cases of food contamination from processing and serving points. Not that unnecessary community appraising is good for development but this in itself can be an indicator of the level of awareness on the issues of food safety in the general population and the degree of concern for a government to enforce existing laws regarding the same. Does the silence of Ugandans signal a lack of interest in the issues of food safety or total ignorance about the importance of safe food systems among the masses?
In the Ugandan context, food safety issues still pose challenges of epidemics like cholera and various cases of food poisoning which still take place in the communities.
A red flag was raised in 2015 when the Ministry of Health conducted a study, “The National Burden of Food-Borne Diseases”, which revealed that 1.3 million Ugandans are diagnosed with food-borne diseases annually, indicating 14 per cent of all diseases treated every year due to food contamination.
In addition, because of lack of an effective food safety policy, local and international food trade opportunities are lost. In Uganda the main law that governs food safety is the Food and Drug Act (1964). In 1993, the drug element was transformed into the Drug Act under the National Drug Authority (NDA). This left the food element of the Food and Drug Act hanging. No amendment has been made to this date on what is now referred to as the Food Act. The current Food Act does not address technological developments in the food industry such as food additives and contaminants and packaging.
According to the World Health Organisation, Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick. Foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems, and harming national economies, tourism and trade (WHO, 2020).
The vermin infested milkshake incident involving Café Javas and their client serves as a wakeup call to the issues of food safety. The challenge is to see beyond the isolated cases and analyse the bigger picture. There ought to be more concern about the safety of food consumed by the population on a daily basis.
Ugandan produce especially, maize, beans and groundnuts have been rejected several times on the international market because of contamination commonly from aflatoxins. Food safety is indeed everyone’s business as the theme of the 2019 World Food safety day stated. However, there still remains gaps in the awareness creation and enforcement to adhere to standards. It is not enough to have standards if there are not locally domestically enforced. Minimum standard operating procedures in all food handling processes and places need to be in place and clearly communicated to stakeholders.
There is need to sensitise the masses and facilitate behavioural change communication to inspire change right from the individual level. A general appreciation of the importance of safe food at all levels can in turn influence creation of local enforcement units, probably through voluntary structures at the community or local council level. This will also go a long way to empower community members to hold each other accountable to the acceptable standards. This can be a way for the government to engage and support the increasing numbers of informal food providers to appreciate and adhere to the minimum standard operating procedures.
FAO, 2004. Building a Food Safety System in Uganda. Agenda Item for the SECOND FAO/WHO GLOBAL FORUM OF FOOD SAFETY REGULATORS. Bangkok, Thailand. http://www.fao.org/3/ae191e/ae191e.htm (accessed on 19th October, 2021)
World Health Organisation, 2020. Food safety Fact sheet. (Accessed on 19th October, 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety
Ministry of Health, 1999. Uganda National Health Policy1999. Kampala, Uganda
Patricia Bageine Ejalu, 2008. U.S. AND UGANDAN FOOD SAFETY SYSTEMS: A Challenge to Create Development Partners