Food vendors: When available becomes desirable

You can find restaurants on street corners, offices, under bridges and trees in different parts of the country, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Customers cut across different classes of people who have different reasons for not cooking and eating at home, but how hygienic are these eateries and the foods they serve? PAUL OKAH takes a look at the situation.

At different points in their daily activities most Nigerians are compelled to eat out giving rise to restaurants, fast food outlets and ‘bukas’ springing up at office corners, schools, streets, motor parks, market places, practically every where there is human population.

While some of these eateries are located within hotels, business and office premises in clean and cosy environment, others are in open places, under bridges and trees, in batchers and even close to sewages and gutters, basically unhygienic environment.

Blueprint Weekend check indicated that patronage of these food vendors’ cuts across class and status in society as top executives, directors, civil servants, and artisans as well as other low income earners could be found in the same restaurant with the sole aim of assuaging hunger and nourishing the body.

It is also common sight to see people hawking food on the streets, in the markets, and motor parks. These mobile food vendors use wheel barrows or trucks to convey the food usually in food warmers and buckets.

Blueprint Weekend checks further revealed that proximity and availability of funds are usually the main deciding factor regarding choice of eatery. However, the hygiene of these eateries or mobile food vendors has always been a source of concern to experts, customers and others who question the sanitary conditions under which the food were prepared.

Source of water

Surprisingly, checks by Blueprint Weekend revealed that the water used by some restaurant operators in the FCT either in preparing food or washing dishes used in serving customers is not clean. This is as many of the restaurant owners have to strictly manage which they buy from water vendors popularly called mairuwa.

In the course of investigating the pattern used by make-shift food vendors in different parts of the FCT our correspondent discovered that the common pattern was for the vendors to economise as much water as possible in washing the plates and other utensils.

At the popular Bannex Plaza in Wuse II, our correspondent during a visit on November 4 found that on the cleared area opposite Olive Plaza, a woman in her late sixties, popularly called mama by her customers who are mostly touts and taxi drivers, was busy serving her clients despite the stench emanating from nearby bush, presumably from the urine and faeces passed by visitors to the park.

Interestingly, none of the customers were perturbed by the stench neither did they notice or cared about the yellowish and soapy water used by the food vendor to rinse the plates used in serving them.

They were all howling to be served first to catch up with their business, while the food vendor emptied crumbs from plates into the yellowish water, ran a sponge over  them, picked them up for rinsing in another bowl of not so clean water and then proceeded to serve her customers.    

Ironically, both the food vendor and her customers have grown accustomed to the smell pervading the premises as they engaged in demand and supply.

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, one of the drivers, who simply identified himself as Musa, said his business was to eat and do his job and not to bother about the environment.

“De smell follow enter my belle,” he queried our correspondent in Pidgin English.

“My own is to eat and go to work. If we mind smell, we no go chop them. The important thing na to eat and have strength to work, nothing else,” Musa declared.  

Serving leftovers

It is also common practice among many restaurant owners to assemble left over foods, which could have been contaminated as a result of poor handling and preservation, for sale to unsuspecting customers. This often times result in some clients ending up with food poisoning.

Speaking to our correspondent, a restaurant operator in Jahi, a satellite community in Abuja, who refused to have her name in print, admitted that she does not dispose of leftovers.

She said that she usually mixes the leftovers with other dishes and serve her customers for economic reasons.

“The truth is that we cannot exhaust our food every day. When you prepare little rice or soup, they will finish before the end of the day. When you cook much, there may be days you will not have many customers. So, you have to warm the food to sell the following day.

“Also, some customers, especially ladies, would order food they cannot finish, especially when they come with men. They would just peck at the food and leave enough behind on the plate for us to clear.

“You cannot expect me to dispose of a full plate of rice or bowl of soup because a girl wants to pretend for her boyfriend. I know better.

“There is economic hardship, so anyone wasting food is not my friend. I know how to make double gain from leftover food instead of throwing them away to satisfy lazy people. It is about being smart and calculating in this business. It won’t do to waste food in this economic recession,” she said.

Unhygienic utensils

Apart from the dirty water used in washing dishes to serve hungry customers, many restaurants are so careless that even sitting on the chairs meant for customers could attract some sort of infection. The dirty pots and pans used in preparing food for public consumption is another matter all together.

A visit to the kitchens of different restaurants revealed that the food served customers more often than not does not reflect the state of the kitchen where the food was prepared.

In Kado Kuchi, a suburb community in the FCT, a popular restaurant, known as Nwanyi Nsukka, our correspondent found that flies were perching on tables with dirty pots and dishes littered at a corner of the kitchen yet to be attended to.

This is as a surreptitious glance at the kitchen, when Blueprint Weekend visited the eatery on November 4, further revealed plates soaked in water, tomato ketchup on the floor and wrapers of different seasons littering the floor, while a pot of egusi soup and stew were left uncovered, despite flies buzzing around them.

One of the cooks also had blood dripping from her fingers, probably from a knife a cut, which she eventually bandaged with torn black water proof and carried on with her chores.

Our correspondent found that a wooden counter separated the kitchen from the restaurant, reportedly to prevent customers from gaining access to the kitchen, however, many of the clients were more bothered about being served while they watched the movie showing on the television.

Unhygienic condiments

Different types of meat are used by food vendors; however, Blueprint Weekend checks revealed that in a bid to save cost many restaurant operators often buy cheap meat, usually leftovers and poorly preserved so as to make quick gains.

Some of them reportedly go to the extreme of buying already chicken and goats at ridiculously low prices.

In a bid to check the menace and accompanying health issues, the Director of Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), Baba Shehu Lawan, had directed the AEPB department of Monitoring and Enforcement to seize and destroy meat brought from outside Abuja for sale.

Lawan gave the directive while speaking at a stakeholders meeting on Meat Haulage Policy with FCT Butchers Association and those from neighbouring states in Abuja.

He said the directive was to protect public interest and not meant to run anyone out of business, noting that there have been rampant cases of unhealthy donkey meats being brought in from other states and was totally unacceptable as there was no guarantee of the health status of such meat.

“We don’t want any economic loss to anyone but there is no going back. The policy has already been approved by FCT Administration.

“What we want is to upgrade the meat value chain. As a budding world class city and capital of Africa’s most populous nation, Abuja attracts a lot of local and foreign dignitaries; therefore it deserves nothing but the best, especially in food quality. Thus, the meat that is consumed in the FCT must meet global food safety standards,” he said.

Also speaking at the forum, Director, Veterinary Services of Agriculture and Rural Development Secretariat, Dr Regina Adulugba, said it was unacceptable that while other states have since upgraded their meat haulage policy, the FCT lags behind.

She promised that as soon as the minister settled down, the FCTA would declare an emergency in its abattoirs and slaughter slabs in order to ensure that every animal slaughtered in FCT was healthy and safe for human consumption.

Why business thrives

Our correspondent spoke to some FCT residents on why they patronise food vendors despite the health risks involved and got mixed reactions.

A civil servant, Mr Donatus Okafor, said that food vendors provide timely services especially when one is in a hurry to get to the office or could not get home for a decent meal.

“Irrespective of perceived health hazards, the truth remains that these food vendors are sometimes very helpful if one does not want to eat snacks and minerals. All you have to do is to walk into nearby restaurant and you will be attended to in minutes whenever you are on the move and hungry,” he said.

Also, a student, who gave her name simply as Rita, said she doesn’t like cooking sometimes and would rather buy food from a nearby restaurant than boil a kettle of water.

“The fact is that cooking is tasking at times. So, I don’t cook always. Besides, I live alone and I don’t eat much. I make do with buying food from a restaurant. It is usually very affordable. You can get what you want to eat for as low as N300. Since I can’t cook with less than N1,000 it is a good bargain for me to buy from restaurants,” she said.

Similarly, another civil servant in Utako, Mr Musa Abdullahi, said though he is married, he eats in restaurants whenever he feels hungry.

“I have to eat every four hours because of my stomach ulcer. I can’t afford to stay hungry for a long time. There are times I get home from work and food won’t be ready, I seek nearby restaurant and eat. It is not every time I bother my wife to cook when she doesn’t feel like it. I can make little sacrifices,” he said.

Hygiene should be looked into

In separate interviews, some FCT residents appealed to government and health agencies to conduct unscheduled visits to eateries to monitor and ensure adequate hygienic conditions.

The residents called on the agencies saddled with the responsibility of monitoring and enforcing food hygiene laws to beam their searchlights on food vendors and operators.

A businessman, Mr Emmanuel Nonso, advised community health officials to also beam their searchlights on restaurant operators to ensure proper and hygienic cooking environment.

“Government needs to embark on impromptu visits to well established hotels and restaurants in order to monitor the cooking environment to ensure safety and hygiene of the areas. They should not concentrate only on markets and shops to arrest or seize substandard items,” he said.

For former hotel staff, Ms Joy Abu, the cooking environment of some hotels and popular eateries are unhealthy. “Most of these eateries have very poor hygiene environment, but people do not know because customers are not allowed into the kitchen or cooking areas.

“It is only the government officials that can carry out impromptu visits to all the big restaurants and hotel kitchens to supervise and ensure that the cooking environments are clean,’’ she said.

Another civil servant, Mr Femi Adegoke, said he had treated various types of diseases caused by food poisoning as a result of patronising eateries.

“My family is not based here in Abuja and I close late from work. So most times, I rely on food vendors to eat, which had made me fall ill severally and received treatment for food poisoning.’’

Also, a nurse Mrs Gloria Joseph said unhealthy food and unhygienic environment could cause diseases and infections that could pose serious risk to the health of an individual.

“These could result to food poisoning, vomiting, stomach upset, constipation, irregularities in blood pressure due to the use of untreated salts, ingredients that could be harmful to our hearts and other complications,” she said.

FCTA demands improved sanitation

The Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) in a press statement on November 3, called for improved sanitation in the Abattoir, Fruit Market and Motor Park in Zuba.

The Director, Department of Monitoring and Inspection, Mr Olawale Labiyi, urged the Gwagwalada Area Council to team up with the AEPB to ensure that the Zuba axis is kept clean.

Labiyi, however, commended the managers of Zuba Abattoir for ensuring clean slaughter slab, but enjoined them to keep the entire environment clean.

Govt paying attention

Speaking in Abuja on June 7, this year, during the World Food Safety Day, aimed at calling global attention to the unhealthy effects of unsafe food, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health, Abdulaziz Abdullahi, said the government understood the importance of safe handling of food in the country and has launched the National Policy on Food Safety & Its Implementation Strategy.

He said the policy was expected to usher in a new era of food control in the country “where all tiers of government and MDAs will work together alongside the Organised Private Sectors (OPS) to ensure the wholesomeness of our foods.”

Mr Abdullahi said the federal government has since 2015 initiated the process that will guarantee the safety of food, revealing that two committees were also inaugurated consisting of representatives from the public, private and academic sectors.

He said the urgent need to raise awareness in food safety stemmed from the increase in global food poisoning and diseases, adding that his ministry was working with the state ministries of health and agriculture as well as the Environmental Health Officers Registration Council of Nigeria to further strengthen the process.

“Unsafe food practices abound across the country. These include unhealthy cultivation practices through the use of unapproved chemicals (such as calcium carbide in fruit and vegetable ripening) and fertilisers; poor food storage and processing facilities, as seen in a number of abattoirs and along the roads; the use of disused tires and kerosene in roasting animals for human consumption; non-hygienic food preparation environments as seen in the way foods are prepared by the roadsides, gutters and near open faecal defecation areas among others.

“These can lead to diseases such as Typhoid, Cholera, Diarrhoea, Botulism, Listeriosis, Hepatitis A, and Cancer. In terms of regulation, the Federal Minsitry of Health has empowered the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), to be able to undertake more effectively its mandate in the regulation of processed and packaged foods in the country,” he said.

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