Culture drives many things, but how does it impact food safety?

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PHOENIX — One topic flowed as an undercurrent this afternoon even though it wasn’t on the session agenda for a group of panelists at the 2021 Conference of the International Association for Food Protection.

Economics kept coming up as the panel discussed “Diversity in Food Culture from Sushi to Steak Tartare: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Roots of Food Safety Behaviors.” Phyllis B. Posy of PosyGlobal in Jerusalem moderated the discussion. Participants were:

  • Caroline Smith DeWaal, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Washington D.C.; 
  • Amarat (Amy) Simonne, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 
  • Bobby Krishna, Dubai Municipality, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; 
  • Adewale Olusegun Obadina, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria; and 
  • Joe Mac Regenstein, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

The four main topics addressed in the 90-minute session covered street food, cold chain, fermentation, and regulations within cultures. But when it came down to it, money was the bottom line behind much of the discussion.

The economics of food cultures across the globe vary widely, but a common denominator is the end cost to the consumer. The more requirements and regulations in place the more money it costs to be a street vendor, for example.

Obadina said when trainers go out and educate vendors in Nigeria in food safety the vendors all like it, but there is always the question “who will pay for it.”

Krishna agreed about the economic impact of food safety costs. He said in India any change, no matter how important, is perceived to make food more expensive for consumers. To help vendors understand food safety, the government is paying them after they successfully complete a training course.

Then there are the street markets, somewhat akin to farmers markets in the United States, said DeWaal. In other countries they have a more critical role, she said, providing an affordable food source for local people. So no matter what group people are from — vendors, consumers, or government — increased food safety is perceived to be an expense, not necessarily a solution.

In addition to economics, other common discussion points included education and data collection, with virtually all of the panelists agreeing that more of both are urgently needed.

The panelists discussed the four following areas. Not all panelists addressed all four points.

Topic One: How safe is street food?
To a person, the panelists agreed on four key considerations hindering the safety of food from street vendors: no cold chain, no potable water, no regulations, and no infrastructure.

A lack of electricity for refrigeration can’t be addressed until some level of infrastructure is in place, and that is slow in coming, they said.

Simonne said improvements must be made in Thailand because street food is part of the economic engine that drives the country. Electricity is the key improvement needed in most areas in terms of improving food safety. The areas that now have access to electricity are already making strides, she said.

“Street food is here to stay,” she said.

Krishna said progress is also slow in his home country of India, but things are in the works. He said when he was a boy there weren’t any restaurants or other places to buy food so you had to go to street vendors and markets. There have been advancements in the past five years, he said, but much more work needs to be done.

Topic Two: Cold chain considerations
As with the first discussion point, access to electricity was a key point for speakers when discussing the lack of a cold chain in many countries. The reasons are not, however, always related to infrastructure. Some cultural and religious practices are in play, according to the presenters.

In India, Obadina said, some of those vendors who lack power rely on ice. However, instead of making consumers more comfortable because of the refrigeration aspect, the ice makes many in the country skeptical. He said the perception is that if fish has to be kept on ice it means it is not fresh. The mindset is the same for virtually all fresh food — if it requires ice, it’s not fresh.

In some religious communities around the world refrigeration comes in second to traditional slaughter methods, said Regenstein. Both Kosher and Halal preparation calls for the blood to be removed, which can have some impact on food safety. Also, any problems with any of the organs or a wound on an animal preclude the entire animal from consumption.

Another key to Kosher and Halal food preparation is to thoroughly cook meat, again to remove blood, Regenstein said, but with the added effect of killing pathogens.

Simonne said in Thailand traditional methods of fermentation and salting are thought to be a replacement for refrigeration. But many are learning that is not true as educational efforts progress.

One reason vendors in Thailand and other countries are willing to learn about improving food safety is the almighty tourist dollar, according to all of the panelists.

The accidental tourist topic
Tourism and food safety wasn’t on the list of discussion points for the session today, but it reared its head throughout the 90-minute presentation.

No matter what region was discussed similar thoughts were presented. Countries, right down to the level of street vendors, want to increase tourism and tourists don’t want to get sick when they are on vacation.

The vacation dollars are “a huge driver” for food safety in street vending, said Posy. She said changes are being made every day to improve food safety in travel destinations.

DeWaal pointed to research out of the U.S., China, and Denmark that has shown improvements in food safety and tourists’ trust have been enhanced by restaurant rating systems. In systems where restaurants must display inspection rating businesses benefit and tourists are more confident.

And, with the introduction of Google reviews and the like, tourists have the power to know before they book travel whether they want to risk certain areas and foods, Krishna said.

Krishna also said in some areas savvy developers are creating somewhat authentic experiences for tourists by building street markets that look traditional but have the benefits of modern technology and utilities. They give a taste of authenticity with much less of a chance of food poisoning.

Topic Three: Fermentation’s role
Obadina said much of the fermentation in Africa is done on a very small-scale basis by people who are lacking in knowledge of best practices. Consequently, pathogens can be introduced. But more often the threat is from mycotoxins.

In Africa, fermented food is mainly from grains and root vegetables, with mycotoxins being a particular problem area. He said part of the problem comes from the water that is used and part of the problem is sometimes leaves that are used in the process.

“We need more surveillance of food,” Obadina said, adding that chemicals and mycotoxins are a bigger problem than many pathogens that are destroyed in processing and cooking. Over time a buildup of mycotoxins can cause problems for many people.

In Kosher food, salt is often used and offers a small reduction in pathogens, but Regenstein said it is “no where near” the 4 log or 5 log reduction desired in terms of food safety.

Simonne said in Thailand seafood and vegetables are frequently fermented and often have high salt content. During fermentation there can be problems, which researchers are looking for, she said. “We just need more data.”

Topic Four: Regulations and preserving culture
Before new regulations are enacted, all of the panelists agreed that science-based data is needed. DeWaal said the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have been working on the issues related to street food since the 1960s.

Progress has been made.

In 2006 the WHO published a guide to healthy food markets and the agencies are working on programs to train vendors.

“There are definitely a lot of resources from WHO and FAO on training vendors,” she said.

Obadini said in Africa education for vendors is lacking mostly because of government funding. Without that money, there is little point in imposing new regulations because they could not be implemented.

Krishna said interest in food is increasing in India, but not necessarily around food safety. “We have a long way to go,” he said, “with vendors and water.” He said a lack of structure for finding and tracking foodborne illnesses is also a big problem and that India needs preventive measures even if they don’t have regulations.

Conclusions
DeWaal summed up the session with a brief comment about the responsibilities of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She said FDA has a daunting task and issues with funding. The USDA has extensive programs in place, but not nearly the number of foods as the FDA regulates. Funding is also an issue for food safety programs at the USDA, she said.

But DeWaal ended her comments with a global comment.

“What’s really important is how to improve domestic programs globally,” she said. 

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