Superior culinary hygiene demands food safety throughout the supply chain, from production to consumption. It was with this in mind, seven years ago, that the Port Health Unit of the Ministry of Public Health adopted a robust campaign to ensure all meals offered at the main port of entry – the Cheddi Jagan International Airport [CJIA] – meet high global standards.
Globally, 80 per cent of deaths are blamed on unsafe food and food-borne diseases. While these remain significant public health problems, they also impede socio-economic growth and development, by putting a severe strain on health-care systems, and have been known to negatively impact tourism and trade, and by extension, national economies.
According to statistics from the Pan American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation [PAHO/WHO], diarrhoea remains the most common disease linked to food in the Region of the Americas. It has also been deduced that Norovirus, Campylobacter, E. coli and non-typhoid salmonella, are the most important food-safety concerns.
Guyana has so far avoided the burden of such concerns through the Ministry of Public Health’s free, annual, compulsory training and certification of food handlers vending at the CJIA.
“Health Officers stationed at the country’s ports of entry act as the strongest line of defence against food-borne diseases,” said Ms. Bonita Mc Donald, Port Health Officer at the CJIA.
“We perform a vitally important service to the consuming public, but the results of safety lie with the food handlers and suppliers,” Mc Donald explained during a recent interview at the Food Handlers’ workshop at the CJIA.
According to Mc Donald, food safety consciousness is linked to personal hygiene. She said the human body and clothing can be major carriers of micro-organisms, thus food handlers must at all times maintain good hygiene and wear freshly-laundered outfits.
“If we don’t do basic things like brushing our teeth, showering, and be tidy, we will contaminate the food, then the customer will have a contaminated product. We want you to be selling a safe product for the customers, in this case to our departing and arriving travellers,” she said.
She reminded participants that food handlers must be free from all contagious diseases.
“You should be free from any rash, boils or infected cuts and free from any unusual discharge from the ear, eye or nose,” said the Port Health Officer.
While wearing hair restraints, hats or aprons is vital when preparing and serving food, Mc Donald also cautioned against the age-old practice of leaving the food-preparation site while still wearing the apron.
“Sometimes food handlers leave the preparation area to go empty the bin with their apron still tied to their waist. This practice can result in contamination of food at its preparation stage,” she cautioned.
She said, too, that wearing jewellery while handling food “is strictly prohibited” under the United States Food and Drug Administration [FDA] regulations and that of the International Health Regulations [IHR].
According to the FDA, food handlers must remove all unsecured jewellery and other objects that might fall into foods. They must also remove hand jewellery that cannot be adequately sanitised during periods in which food is being manipulated by hand.
“Jewellery is a carrier of germs. That is why the law forbids food handlers from wearing any form, especially wedding bands,” Mc Donald explained.
Under international rules, too, food safety guidelines also require handlers avoid handling money while handling food. Chewing gum, smoking in the food-preparation area, eating and spitting in restricted areas, coughing or sneezing over food is also forbidden while operating in a food establishment.
Appropriate hand hygiene is also important for food preparers. Regular cleaning and trimming of fingernails is also important, since these can hide dirt and germs and contribute to the spread of some infections such as pinworms.
“Our fingernails are major carriers for germs [and] we ought to keep these short and clean at all times,” Mc Donald asserted. Keeping hands clean through improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps food handlers can take to avoid contamination of food.
“Wet your hands with clean, running water [warm or cold], turn off the tap, and apply soap. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, then you rinse and you pat dry, then turn off the tap with paper towel,” Mc Donald explained.
McDonald also reminded that food handlers should wash their hands after using the washroom, touching parts of their bodies, sneezing, coughing or using a tissue, smoking, chewing tobacco or gum. They are also required to wash their hands thoroughly after taking out the garbage, handling dirty dishes and after handling raw foods.
Food safety guidelines also require that food handlers wash their hands before handling ‘ready-to-eat foods, before and after caring for someone who is sick, and similarly for treating a cut or wound.
Gloves can be worn for a maximum of two hours while completing a specific task uninterrupted.
According to the WHO, foods are safe when they do not contain dangerous microbes [bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi], chemicals [allergens, waste from veterinary drugs, agrochemicals, or toxins], or foreign bodies [soil, hair, insects, etc.] that are a danger to our human health. Processed foods can also be contaminated if handlers do not follow correct procedures.
“Chemical contamination in food can result in death. Chemicals must be stored away from food, both raw and cooked,” Mc Donald added.
Job satisfaction at the CJIA is paramount, since according to Mc Donald, she enjoys great support from food providers. “I have never had to initiate enforcement actions because the food handlers have been compliant on the first or second warning,” she said.
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