Ellen Jere has vivid memories of how she had a close shave with death in January 2018 when she caught cholera.
“I remember that, two days prior, I had gone to Lilongwe Central Business District to buy plastic utensils and, of course, some second-hand clothes.
“Just after lunch hour, I decided to catch a meal at a makeshift structure before continuing with my shopping,” Jere said.
She notes that she opted for a cheap place because she had very little money to spend outside the budget.
“Everything went well until two days later when I started experiencing some unusual feeling.
“I developed watery diarrhea, started vomiting, and had leg cramps. First, I took it lightly but, an hour later, the illness developed so fast that I was rushed to the hospital where it was confirmed that I had cholera,” Jere says.
Just like Jere, 28-year-old Magaret Katsala of Phuka Village, Traditional Authority Phambala, in Ntcheu District cannot forget the trauma she endured after eating contaminated meat at Kampepuza Market on a market day late last year.
“The next day, I started feeling nausea, started vomiting and developed diarrhoea.
“When I went to the hospital, I was diagnosed with food poisoning,” Katsala said.
Jere and Katsala are just a few examples of Malawians who suffer from food-related illnesses every year.
According to Secretary for Health Charles Mwansambo, every year, 600 million people in the world fall sick from different types of food-borne illnesses.
Mwansambo says the burden of such illnesses falls most heavily on the poor and the young.
“In addition, food-borne illnesses are responsible for 420,000 preventable deaths every year.
“Food safety saves lives. It is not only a crucial component to food security but also plays a vital role in reducing food-borne diseases,” Mwansambo says.
Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) Executive Director John Kapito says it is astonishing to note how authorities have dropped the guard in as far as food safety standards are concerned.
Kapito says while good practice demands that authorities the regularly check the quality of food being consumed, reality on the ground tells a different story.
“When is the last time you saw officials monitoring the standards in ziwaya za chips and ziwaya za mphuno za nkhumba being sold in town.
“Where do you buy your fish in Lilongwe? Who monitors that quality of the fish which is mostly sold with swarms of flies flying around?” Kapito asked.
The Malawi Government has a number of institutions mandated to ensure that the quality of food consumed in the country is safe. The institutions include the Malawi Bureau of Standards, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Local Government through district, municipal and town councils plus the Competition and Fair Trading Commission (CFTC).
The institutions discharge their duties in the enforcement of food standards using the Public Health Act. The Act creates the legal framework for the protection of public health in Malawi and, for this purpose, provides for powers of the administration to regulate and control animal and food production and handling, food and water supply and sewerage.
MBS Director of Standards Development, Fred Sikwese, says his institution works with food processors in ensuring that the food they produce is in line with set standards.
Speaking during a panel discussion for the 2021 Food Safety Day, Sikwese said, after developing the standards, the MBS passes on the standards to the food producers so that they produce their goods according to the standards.
According to Sikwese, MBS frequently monitors the producers to make sure that whatever they are producing is meeting the standards.
He added that MBS also certifies restaurants to make sure that the food they produce is meeting the standards.
On people cooking food such as nsima, chips, and various kinds of meet in various districts, towns and municipalities, Sikwese said it is the responsibility of councils to ensure that they comply with the standards.
Deputy Director of Preventive Health Services in the Ministry of Health Allone Ganizani said the best indicator of how the country is doing, in as far as food safety is concerned, is the behaviour of the people after eating the food.
“Are the people getting sick after eating the food, yes. Some are even dying,” Ganizani said.
He noted that what is more critical are the measures that the government is putting in place to ensure that it reduces cases of people getting sick or dying due to consuming contaminated food.
According to Ganizani, there is a need for close collaboration among various institutions entrusted with the role of ensuring that food safety standards are met so as to reduce and eliminate deaths caused by food borne diseases.
Director of Animal Health in the Ministry of Agriculture, Patrick Chikungwa, said the ministry still conducts meat inspection exercises across the country.
Chikungwa admitted that the Animal Health Department in the Ministry of Agriculture continues to face challenges of infrastructure across the country where they could send their officials to do frequent meat inspection exercises.
“We all have a responsibility of ensuring that whatever we eat is not contaminated,” Chikungwa said.
Research Officer in the Department of Fisheries, James Banda, said the department monitors the value chain in the fish business to ensure that all steps are followed, from where the fish leaves the water to the market, to ensure that the product is safe for consumption.
Sustainable Development Goal Number Two talks about Zero Hunger. According to Mwansambo, there is no food security without without food safety.
“Ending hunger is about all people having access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round,” he says.
Similary, food safety has a direct impact on SDG goal number 3 of Good Health and Well-being.
Truth be told, one thing remains clear. The country’s food standards have collapsed.
Fish and beef markets with swams of flies are the order of the day.
Days of an agriculture official on a bicycle or a motorcycle combining through cities, villages and towns are far gone.
Days of city and district council officials inspecting and confisticating low standard food in townships are long forgotten. Food standards have been thrown into the dustbin.