Meat laced with formalin: How safe is the food we consume in Uganda?

January 24, 2018

Immaculate Daisy,

Media reports in Uganda two weeks ago revealed that butchers are using formalin to extend the shelf-life of meat. Formalin — a substance meant to preserve dead bodies has become popular in butcheries as it also keeps flies away raising the question of food safety in Uganda. As a result, a few people were implicated and sentenced to eight months in prison after confirmatory tests.  However, the bigger concern on food safety should be eminently adressed. The disconnect in existing laws and the reality of unsafe food consumed is evident. Current laws such as the Public Heath Act of 1935 which exist are not only outdated, but also their implementation equally lacks leaving those who ought to be protected by the legal frameworks in peril. Meagre resouce allocations in budgets towards public health have been perpetual making functionality of structures estabalished ineffective.  

It is apparent food safety has not been prioritised as it should be seen from the limited inspections that have resulted in many people joining the food trade unlicensed. The unhygenic and unsanitary conditions in which food is prepared and served coupled with precarious food preparations are partly the cause of food related disease outbreaks such as cholera, food poisoning and diarrhoea diseases. It is not therefore surprising that about 1.3 million Ugandans are diagnosed with food-borne diseases annually and 14 per cent of all diseases treated every year are due to food contamination as it is noted in the Ministry of Health, report of 2016.

Re-thinking policies

It is not uncommon in Uganda to walk in and around the city and find food vendors going about their business in surroundings littered by heaps of waste garbage, sewage spewing from broken pipes and pockets of stagnated water only meters away from food stations. This is a common sight in the outskirts of the city and surrounding areas where over 15 per cent of the population live.

The restaurants which the “middle-class” frequent are no exception.  Hygiene and sanitation evidently lacks as observed from the general ambience. Majority of restaurant owners and in households have turned to using polythene bags to steam green bananas commonly known as matooke as opposed to the safe and conventionally used banana leaves. This practice unknowingly gradually impacts on the health of the food consumers because of the acidic combination in polythene bags.

Sustained actions need to be undertaken to ensure food safety, away from one off responses triggered by emergencies whenever they arise. Outdated laws need to be reviewed to conform to current contextual changes such as urbanisation and priority for individual health and well-being.  Massive campaigns on food safety for both micro and small scale enterprenuers trading in food and households are crucial in these times.