Beware what you eat – A second look

EMERGENCY911 block-1Last week we focused our attention on the October 14-23 E.coli outbreak, traced to the United States restaurant chain Chipotle, which led to the October 31 temporary closure of 43 of the restaurants in the US Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington. Health officials had traced E.coli contamination to meals purchased from  stores in the Portland, Oregon area and several counties in Washington State. At least 30 people fell ill and were hospitalized. However, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. subsequently reported to Reuters that it would reopen all 43 restaurants in Seattle and Portland after federal and state health officials found no evidence of E.coli bacteria at those outlets.

Barbados TODAY reported that Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller had reshuffled her Cabinet and taken the health portfolio from Dr Fenton Ferguson and given it to Horace Daley. The former minister had been at the centre of a major controversy involving the deaths of 19 premature babies from Klebsiella and Serratia bacterial infections at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) and Cornwall Regional Hospital in Jamaica. A total of 483 babies have been admitted to Jamaica hospitals’ special care nurseries since the crisis started in June.

Based just on these two incidents, it would seem that unless death occurs, or a major public relations scandal unfolds, many of the public health concerns of a community go unnoticed by the rest of the world; that is, until the world’s media houses begin to highlight the problem and national credibility comes into question.

There are many in the average community who firmly believe that unless the Press gets involved, the social, economic, public health and security concerns of the average community will go unnoticed by the rest of the world, especially the political directorate of the affected area.

Is this a fair assessment of how communities view governments and the political machinery that guides most governments?

Consider the following scenarios: Last week there was widespread concern regarding an E.coli outbreak in the United States. A minister of health is removed from office because of an ongoing public health emergency which resulted in the deaths of children. In late 2010, and continuing in 2011, a deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti killed 4,500 people and critically sickened more than 650,000. In October 2013, lawyers filing lawsuits against the United Nations claimed that the UN had failed to take responsibility for the outbreak that was traced to sewage from infected UN peacekeepers who had been assigned to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

How often does one hear about the isolated, but collectively high, number of individual cases of food poisoning occurring in the country? “Not very often” would be the usual answer to this question. Is there a reason why only when there is widespread illness resulting in death, that true reasons surface or at least partially surface? What happens when a public health incident is detected in a large private sector business concern and resolved without either the public authorities or surrounding communities being informed, only to have a repeat of the problem, but with its effects not restricted to the confines of the private sector business concern?

One answer is that this does not occur. Another answer is that there are too many conspiracy theorists running around the community with too much time on their hands, and therefore mischief becomes the order of the day. Is this true? Have the television and movie industries so influenced societies that only when it is media driven or presented as conspiracy that the community responds?

Let’s take a closer look at food vendors and the hidden dangers in that environment that are not often talked about. First, consider the food vendors that usually flood a city’s sidewalks during daylight hours, versus the number that function at night. The actual number of vendors is not critical to this issue. What is critical is the high probability of poor preparation, personnel procedures, as well as the actual physical infrastructure that will serve as a venue.

Who monitors these establishments? The obvious answer is the various government departments that enforce public health standards which are required to ensure that an acceptable quality product is presented to the paying public.

The hidden answer is that unless a complaint is raised about the poor quality of a product, there is not much that can be achieved by public health authorities. If no one says anything, nothing can be done. One of the best vehicles for monitoring poor product delivery is word of mouth. It has been said that once the public begins to speak poorly of an establishment, business slows to a crawl. Additionally, mounting rumours and evidence of a particular establishment losing public support soon reaches the authorities, often resulting in an investigation into its operations.

This may not be the best approach to monitoring a food service business, but it is effective in its result. Secondly – and this is where a problem may be hidden – the embarrassment of having fallen sick from food often forces some people to keep quiet about where they got it.

The phrase “beware of what you eat and where” is very true. Most people questioned about food vendors have said that they only eat from people that they know. While this may have its merits, it does not make it right, since even regular customers are not necessarily privy to the preparation and handling before food is sold. There is no guarantee that intimate knowledge of the vendor gives the surety that proper food handling practices occur.

Very often, we as the consuming public take things for granted – that what we are eating has been prepared under optimum safety and health conditions. How often do we stop and ask before we buy food from a wayside vendor? Probably not very often, if at all. How often do you even consider that food served in a four-star restaurant could make a patron ill? Probably never. It has been said that what goes on behind the closed doors of a commercial kitchen might permanently change the minds of all of its customers. The same can be said for eating at a friend or family member.

People with food allergies can quickly become ill because of improper food handling. Do friends and family members ask their guests about their food allergies? Does the guest clearly state that certain foods will make them ill? How many of our friends have severe allergies that, when triggered, could result in hospitalization? One person? Two persons? How about a whole family?

All of these scenarios are not unheard of. What is unacceptable is getting sick due to food poisoning but not saying anything about it, either because of embarrassment or because compensation was offered and accepted so the problem could be kept quiet, with the hope that it does not happen again. Sharing that knowledge is far more important to the overall community than agreeing to either keep quiet about the incident because of compensation, or simply switching to another location. Here is my thought for this week’s column: “Knowledge shared benefits everyone, and not just a select few.”?

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