Food safety issues in Samoa

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Orlando Huaman*

I write this in response to a statement from the Ministry of Health titled Ministry delivers food safety plan published in your newspaper a few weeks ago. I found the topic quite interesting and I’d like to share a few thoughts about general food safety standards in Samoa. 

Effective national food control systems are essential to protect the health and safety of domestic consumers. Consumers expect protection from hazards occurring along the entire food chain (production, handling, storage, processing, and distribution), from primary producer through consumer (often described as the farm- to table continuum).

It is impossible to provide adequate protection to the consumer by merely sampling and analysing the final product. Or just a response mechanism after the fact.

The introduction of PREVENTIVE  measures  at all stages of the food production and distribution chain, rather than only inspection and rejection at the final stage. This what HACCP is all about.

Allow me to summarize my comment; Prevention is better than cure. Any medical doctor will tell you that. But in the matter of the above subject; prevention have missed the mark by a long shot, by using the amorphous word “response.”

Would you people that have delivered “the food safety plan” wait for the “crime” to be committed (food poisoning, economic fraud, cross-contamination, mislabeling, wrong formulation, presence of strange materials, etc.) and then “respond” as quickly as possible? Not in my book! Would you rather quickly call the fire department after the hospital burned down? Or install fire and smoke alarms all over to prevent any fire?  Or would you rather have ambulances at the ready in a dangerous intersection, rather than post policemen to properly control traffic?

In my opinion no matter how quick is the response mechanism you are alluding  it won’t protect  the public health if a good prevention mechanism is in place. And it probably is cheaper than repair all the damage done regardless of the quick response. Take the case of the Savalalo Market. Those that planned it, did not figure in their wildest dream, that a fire would occur, anytime, with so much flammable material: cardboard, timber, oil, gas, paper, all over. A perfect fire hazard, indeed, besides the not so quick response of the security guard.

Besides a food recall is not necessary( the damage is done to the consumers), when preventing measures are strictly enforced. In this regard Quarantine plays a very important role by not admitting food products or medicines from unreliable sources. 

The key word here is PREVENTION not as you say strong and effective RESPONSE, also recall. Recall is an emergency measure only. Both (response and recall) only alleviate the damage. (3000 persons died in the USA (CDC) every years-- for circumstances beyond their control, due to foodborne  diseases; but not from a weak food safety laws.

The only solution that I see feasible in order to prevent  food insecurity in Samoa, is to eliminate the problem at its roots. That is educate the food establishments ( bakeries, butcheries, hatcheries, fast food outlets, street vendors, pastries producers, water bottling,, food markets, restaurants, food producer farmers, slaughter houses, mobile slaughtering units, hotels, tourist eateries, prisons and hospital cooking, canneries, dairies and ice cream factories, etc.)  on matters of sanitation (personal), formulation, labeling, packaging, receiving (raw ingredients,), deliveries, storage.

If all these steps are properly monitored by trained personnel ( food inspectors) we have our food checked, and as such safe for consumption. 

This is not an easy task indeed, but it is possible to do it here. With good brains and very concerned authorities, everything is possible!!

Take the U.S.A., that have the safest food in the word. Why? Because all the food establishments are monitored by trained personnel called the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the Department of Agriculture (USDA). And this done on a daily basis. In fact, I have worked in that capacity for 15 years, in several states and two territories; American Samoa and Guam/Saipan. I have also managed food plants, slaughter houses, dairy and ice cream operation, beverage bottling, import/export inspection. My professional and educational experience (for more than 35 years, and still going) allow me to shout loud and clear the unsafety of our food in Samoa.

Being this a small island would not be too difficult to establish, on a permanent basis, an office that perform this important function for the population’s health. As a matter of fact, I wrote a proposal in this regard while working as a safety consultant for SROS.

Such office (Food Safety and Inspection Service of Samoa-FSISS) could be located either at the hospital or at SROS. Money for it? Eliminate the Associate Ministers position, get rid of the corrupt people, prioritize our budget with common sense decisions. Our health should take precedence to political favouritism.

Medical doctors, per se, are not trained in matter of food security. But they could. If only 10% of the graduating pastors could become food inspectors, we will do a giant step for our health, rather than go and manage more white elephants (churches) and squeeze the poor, and not so poor of their hard earned Talas, and plead for donations to death. This is the professional area of food technologists, food scientists, or food engineering. Our universities should give strong support in this area, also APTC.  My interest in this area goes way back to 2007,and before.

 In fact I have written and published in the Samoa Observer, 21 articles covering different aspects of our food insecurity and ways to improve it. I have also been a victim of this situation with 4 food poisoning at the local restaurants that put me out of action for over a week. Culprit: Eschlerichia coli, and Salmonella, among other microorganisms.

Licences to open up food outlets are given without a proper background check in food sanitation, etc. with the result that we don’t know, how and where, our food is prepared, what are the ingredients, proper cooking temperatures, proper storage, proper formulation, etc. Food workers are employed without a heath certificate. And that goes from the humble restaurants to the fancy foreign ones.

As an example here are some beauties:  I was asked to “inspect’ a food plant in town. And I did it with the condition that I would do it in the same way I would have done it in the U.S.A. As I told the owner. Result: in a matter of minutes I found out 16 deficiencies. Some of them could have been critical, major and /or minor. In the States this plant would not have a future; if it does not shape up, and fast. Yet whoever is in charge of this monitoring never noticed, least took action. In another occasion I “visited” a bakery out of town. This with the permission of its owner. Same; unsanitary personnel, lack of hot water, lack of bathroom facilities,  rust and dust all over. Why I “visited” this bakery? Because I found my early Sunday morning bread full of ants. Would you believe I almost ate a keke pu’a with a bug in it. 

If it was not for my wife’s sharp sight, I would have swallow it. Now as a precaution I eat it with fork and knife. And sold to me not by a street vendor, but by one of the biggest grocery store in town. What is worse, the owner denied ownership of the contaminated product.  By the same token there is a butchery that uses no hot water. (how does he do his disinfection and sterilization of his butchery tools? And to top it all, the owner says, he is under HACCP from N.Z. Yes, from N.Z. my friend, not from here. Well, this gives HACCP a bad name. Since I have been involved in its development  of HACCP from the beginning in 1988 in the USA and put in practice in 2000. In fact all the food plants I inspected in the USA, were under HACCP by law. No food plant, in the USA, operates without the presence of a food inspector!!

The question is: Shall we trust our food manufactures  in general. Or just respond quickly if they make mistakes, and also recall what is left? 

Here is a biggie. A baby African snail was found, years back, inside a bottle of Coca Cola. I did what a conscious consumer should do. I wrote a letter to the world headquarters of Coca Cola, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Also a letter to the New York Times. Attachment enclosed. Its response was quick. The head of the Pacific Coca Cola (Australia) and his quality control manager (N.Z.) met me at the old Grey Hotel. Did they say: we are sorry that this happened in our bottling plant in Samoa? Not a word close to that. They enlightened me how they do their quality control job. Yes, all in paper. Yes, I understand I said. Because I, myself, worked for 2 summers at a Coca Cola bottling plant overseas. Besides I taught Quality Control in the Food Industry at the University of Puerto Rico. Also, as we all know, one of the most fashionable bottled water is Perrier (in France). Yet, algae residues were found in some bottles of the famous and expensive bottled water. Did they defend themselves? You bet they did. All of the above should not have happened if those companies monitor their consumable product at all stages: From farm to table. This called PREVENTION  before they end up at the table of the rich and the poor. HACCP is the answer.

The last time S.A.M.E. brought an “expert’ in HACCP, from Australia, only 9 (out of 20) attended the classes, and the second time, a few months later, only 2 attended (out of 20). A disaster.

In my honest and professional opinion most of the food establishments in Samoa are not ready to undertake HACCP as a preventive measure of food security. Mostly it would not work. Why? the food preparing people are not acknowledged enough to put it in practice. HACCP is the top of the line in food security. Understand; our first manned space ship took food prepared under HACCP. Can you imagine an astronaut with diarrhea in space? First they have to master elementary sanitation (SSOP) Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures in all phases of food preparation, among other areas. Once they can successfully prove they can produce a clean, wholesome product, then they can try HACCP.  Not before. First they have to learn how to walk then, they can run. You can’t jump from riding a bicycle to drive a Roll Royce!

The international trade organization (WTO) does not mess around with unsafe food products. Of this the Chinese are master of deceiving consumers. Even the Australian were caught mixing kangaroo meat into the ground beef, while I worked as a Food Inspector for the USDA/FSIS. Most of all to the American market. Can you imagine what they can send us, a small island, without a solid food safety base? No safety laws, weak enforcement in foreign labelling, and a weak prevention mechanism? If exporting food product is in the mind of some enterprising people, the key word is get ready not only to prepare healthy product for the local consumption but also acceptable in the international market. 

In view of the above. The sensible and scientific question is: What is going to be: the HRRP( Hazard Response Recall Plan) or HACCP(Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points)?

 

*Orlando Huaman is a food technologist. Malololelei.

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