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Food Safety Issues with Street Food

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Street food comes in different forms and fashions, from the ramshackle stall of a vendor in a market or at the roadside, to a sophisticated food truck with stainless steel countertops. Whether it’s food vendors at a big festival or a kiosk in a mall; a hotdog vendor with a little cart in the city or shack at the top of the hill at a tourist stop filled with many jars of pickled fruits and vegetables… We are attracted to the delicious smells and the thought of a food adventure when we’re relaxing or on vacation. How do we evaluate the safety of street food. Street food can be delicious and satisfying. However, is it safe to eat?

Regardless of the format, many of us have found ourselves buying street food at one time or another. I remember the hunger pangs on one vacation in a developing country. I took a public bus from the capital on a four-hour drive to another city out to the west. The bus had no convenience of a toilet or air conditioning and the “Western breakfast” of one egg and a slice of toast at the guest house disappeared from my stomach after two hours.
Some men were selling meat on a stick at a table in the car park at the one restroom stop along the way and since I was famished, anything looked great at that point. Against my better judgement, but feeling adventurous, I stood in line for a snack.

Fresh meat lay on the wooden table, open to the hot, sunny weather at 30C plus temperatures. Flies danced happily on the meat, the table and on everybody, with little attempt to shoo them away. Meat was cut into pieces, put on a stick, then roasted over a coal pot. Some hungry travellers stood around waiting for it to cook. I kept an eye on the food and our bus so as not to get left behind.

‘”Madam, you want cow meat or goat meat kebab?”

Without thinking twice I asked for one of each. My food safety training went out the door and the desire to fill the gaping hole in my stomach prevailed. My kebabs were presented with great ceremony on a torn piece of newspaper, and a mysterious bright red powder was sprinkled on for good measure. The guys handled my money and with the same hands used for food preparation; gave me change, then proceeded to fix meat on a stick for the next hungry traveller.

It goes without saying that I had to make many trips to a washroom the following day because of food poisoning or the inability of my stomach to handle the new microorganisms. I was lucky the discomfort didn’t last too long, until the next food adventure.

This situation is the same in many countries when it comes to street food. Vendors operate from a cramped space with little attention to hygiene. Hand washing, cross contamination, separating food from money, temperature control to prevent spoilage and decrease the growth of harmful microbes, and other control measures expected in food processing plants are not considered.

Yet street vendors could impact countless more consumers than the average restaurant or food processing plant in one day. Such great consumer reach should come with the same safe food handling responsibilities as a sit down restaurant. However, sadly this is not the case. Even in big cities, I’ve found the food safety standards for street vendors pale in comparison to the rules implemented for food processors that make the primary ingredients used by these vendors.

Why don’t we have the same commitment to food safety on the streets like the expectations for ingredient suppliers?

Making street food safe is an enormous challenge. As consumers we make judgments to buy or not to buy based on hearsay, a feeling, hunger, impulse buying and a quick visual scan of the situation.

Phrases I’ve heard in the past include the following:

“If the line is long, that vendor must be doing something right.”

“That food truck has a bad reputation, stay clear.”

“The vendor has one glove on the hand that touches the food and the other hand is free to touch the money.”

“The inspector passed around before the festival started so everything’s great.”

Some basic requirements for safe vending of food on the streets should include the following:

  • Having a means to washing hands. It could be as simple as a large bottle of POTABLE water and some liquid soap set up on a side table, so hands could be washed periodically during the day. I stress potable water since washing hands with dirty water defeats the purpose and could present an additional source of food contamination.
  • Ingredients should be stored safely so they are not affected by high ambient temperature and passing pests like cockroaches and flies. Using covered containers, coolers with ice, clean netting over dry ingredients and other control measures would go a long way.
  • Limiting onsite food preparation by doing most work in a clean controlled environment prior to coming to the venue could also help in keeping food safe
  • Having a system in place to control cross contamination of cooked food from raw food
  • Ensuring food is adequately cooked to kill pathogens
  • Storing cooked food safely at a temperature that would not encourage growth of pathogens
  • Storing ingredients safely to reduce contamination and the growth of pathogens
  • Making just enough to sell on one day if there’s no way to store food safely for another day
  • Implementing pest control measures, starting with detailed cleaning of the work space, countertops, utensils etc.
  • Wearing a hair covering so that hair doesn’t end up in the food
  • Considering food allergens and cross contamination if handling many different ingredients in a cramped space

As the saying goes, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

Food vending and the traditions attached cannot be changed overnight. However, small food safety measures can be implemented whereby the public can still eat and enjoy street food without fear of becoming ill.

A commitment by local regulators would be required to monitor street vending and develop appropriate food safety measures on a case by case basis. Controls would have to be simple, cost effective and easy to implement for them to work and take root.

Training and oversight are required at the local level too. If street vendors are not used to washing their hands; and if money and food are usually handled without any qualms, this behaviour would not simply go away. It would take a consistent effort and regular retraining with public health inspectors providing oversight.

Some countries have a program of monitoring food handlers for parasites by doing simple lab tests on patient’s samples. Other places have a requirement of basic food handler training with a certificate being issued, stating the person attended the course.

How many countries have the manpower and funds to implement such a program? How long would it take to adjust traditions and customs ever so slightly? Who would fund the changes needed like using gloves, installing a hand wash station, paying trainers’ and inspectors’ fees?

This is the dilemma in developing countries and the problem also exists in so called developed nations. I know from personal experience of living in a big city like Toronto and attending street festivals over the years, that more attention could be paid to questionable food handling practices on the street. People still buy and eat quite happily oblivious to any looming food safety threat.

The benefits of implementing safe food handling practices for street food are clear. We want to enjoy food at a kiosk in the mall or a food stand at a festival without even thinking of becoming ill. The food industry is ultimately responsible for public safety when it comes to food borne illness. Direct contact with consumers is the last step in the food chain where we can have a major impact by implementing simple control measures.

Who’s going out to buy street food today?

It usually tastes great… the flavours, the excitement, the adventure…

Just keep an eye out for the hand wash and basic hygiene. Nobody wants to get sick from a food adventure!

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