By Gitau .L.
A recent expose on a local television station that revealed how retailers were using sodium metabisulphite to keep meat products looking fresh left many consumers horrified. The story, promoted under the hashtag #RedAlert, not only revealed how unscrupulous traders used the previously little known chemical, but had authorities cracking down on such traders and changed consumer buying patterns.
The story became a source of some jokes, as many struggled to pronounce the name of the chemical preservative. It reminded me of my struggle with the periodic table back in my high school days because of the complex chemistry terms. Apparently my nightmare keeps following me, as stories of mercury-laced sugar and sodium metasulphite in meat stay in focus.
To the scientists, this was a light matter as they are aware that the chemical has always been used in controllable and minimal amounts in food preservation. This specific story highlighted how the said chemical was being abused in the eyes of the maybe ignorant regulators at the cost of Kenyan lives. Alarmist rather informative would be the correct word to describe it. Fittingly, some of those interviewed for the story were veterinarians, which clearly shows that they have a major role to play in the food production process and ensuring food safety.
What then is the role of vets in ensuring food safety?
When you hear of the word vet, the first thing that springs to mind is a sick pet. Rightly so! This is because the image that conjures up in your mind is a person who treats an ill dog or a sick cat.
Associations portray about what we think of the world that we live in. For instance, if I mentioned the words cooked meat, what comes to your mind is a cook, who prepared the dish, or the waiter who would serve you the food. It is unlikely that you will associate a vet with the meat on your plate.
Although perceived as doctors for sick animals, veterinarians are greatly involved in the safety of foods meant for human consumption and of animal origin. They are in the best position to assess food–borne risks, in the food chain. They are not only placed in the society to treat animals, but also control and reduce the biological hazards associated with the animals and the human public health, generally from farm to plate. This is despite the responsibility of food safety in food control systems lying with the food producers and food processors.
Historically, the veterinarians were set to control diseases at the farm level. Their role has hence extended from the farm to the slaughter house, and now have a dual responsibility of surveillance of animal diseases and ensuring the safety and suitability of animal products for human consumption. Such products include meat and meat products, milk and milk products, eggs and egg products, fish and fish products, honey and apiculture products.
Veterinarian’s role at the farm level
It is often said that good farm welfare equates to good food safety. It is the veterinarians’ role to ensure that farmers have proper guidance of antibiotics meant to cure sick animals, in terms of the right medicines for the right species and correct doses. This could prevent instances such as overuse of antibiotics, making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. If bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they pose a risk to the future generation of animals, which may fall ill but treatment efforts may turn futile as a result of the bacteria resistance. There may be no available antibiotics for the farmer to treat that specific bacteria.
In instances where these bacteria reach the slaughterhouse or get into the market, they may contaminate the meat products, which may eventually cause bacterial resistance to the consumers of the particular animal products.
It is the role of veterinarians to develop an interest in the feeds that animals consume. Toxic feeds could be absorbed into the bloodstream of the animal and eventually get consumed by humans through milk or eggs.
It is the veterinarian’s role to ensure a farmer keeps a record of what antibiotics are used on a certain animal because most farmers may not have this kind of information.
Veterinarian’s role during transport
The law states that it is mandatory that a veterinarian issues a movement permit before an animal is transported from the farm to the slaughter house. The animal in question should be in perfect health, so there is no risk of spreading diseases. It shouldn’t be moving to or from a quarantine zone, so as to avoid spread of diseases, which may later be transferred into consumers’ bodies.
Before transport, the veterinarian must conduct a thorough inspection on the vessel being used for transport and ensure that it meets the requisite standards of transport for specific species of animals. For instance, a vehicle that would be used to transport chicken is not the same one that would be fit to transport cattle. If that happened, there would be a breakage of limbs, ribs and other body parts. This will not only inflict stress to the animal but also cause pain and movement problems.
Studies show that stress and animal productivity are closely interrelated and require a holistic approach. Stressed animals are likely to develop diseases. Treatment may end up leaving the animals with antibiotic residues in the body parts, which we later consume as meat products, thus endangering public health. Meat is believed to harden as a result of a certain hormone that animals release when in fear and stress.
On arrival, the veterinarian should inspect the animal for any injuries or diseases that may have been occurred during transportation. They may then pronounce it fit for slaughter.
In the Abattoirs
At the slaughter house, sick, disabled or dead animals are removed from the food chain by the veterinarians. Animals that show signs of falling sick are labelled “suspects”. This helps in identification of animals that are unfit for human consumption before they are released into the food chain. This is also the stage where veterinarians check that drugs and chemical residues in the animals do not exceed the permitted threshold before slaughter.
These additional checks also allow for further identification of antibiotics or chemicals that may have illegally be used in production, with an aim of reducing the risks that could arise after public consumption.
Veterinarians in Food processing and production
The involvement of veterinarians in food processing has expanded gradually in recent days. This is done to ensure that processed animal products are properly cooked at the right temperatures, so as to reduce the risk of salmonella and other serious pathogens that may have infested the meat.
In countries that export food of animal origin, veterinary inspection is crucial to ensuring that relevant body parts are removed from a carcass before being exported to intended countries.
In food stores
Traditionally, the public health assistants who fall under the Veterinary arm have always been involved in the inspection of the retail side of the food stores. Additionally, food that is meant for export could require veterinary health certification to ensure that the food of animal origin is of good hygienic quality.
The #RedAlert feature clearly indicated that there is a gap in the public health industry because the public health officials should have inspected such products before they get into the plate of the common mwananchi. The reporter conducted laboratory tests on meat samples which revealed high levels of sodium metabisulphite.
What is on your plate in restaurants?
Few of us give much thought about the source of our food on our plate, until perhaps we come down with food poisoning.
Food poisoning cases can be avoided especially in restaurants, when people handle food properly. To achieve this, developed countries like USA, under the organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have employed veterinary epidemiologists to as part of the team to track down and investigate food poisoning cases, and such investigations reach right into the fridges, storerooms and kitchens of restaurants and homes.
Undertaking a trace-back
It is always important to undertake a traceback in the whole food processing system, as a problem may not only lies in restaurants, but also in other stages of the food production.
The trace-back process, carried out by veterinarians is important as it aids in establishing where the problem could have come in, in the food chain, from the farm to the fork. Did the problem occur at the storage point or at the point of sale? Did the problem occur at the processing plant? Is it at the abattoir or is it during the transportation process?
Strategies towards achieving food safety
We cannot afford to overlook food safety as it concerns us, in our day to day lives. What strategies then can we adopt in order to minimize the rising cases of food safety that go hand in hand with ignorance?
The word vet in linguistics is a very distinctive word that means checking something thoroughly and in detail. In this case vetting an animal or an animal product.
After thorough checking, what the veterinarian says becomes true and believable. The veterinarians hence should ensure that they conduct a thorough check up on animal products meant for human consumption.
Retailers, food processors and restaurants should also ensure that they maintain a high level of hygiene when handling human consumables. Contamination is known to be the main cause of food poisoning and when this is avoided, it becomes easy to tackle such risks.
With increasing globalization, the veterinary profession will turn out to be the most crucial profession globally. This is for reasons such as more and more processed foods of animal origin. The veterinarians’ work with food of animal origin is an indicator of the influence they now have and will probably have in the future, in the whole process in the food chain.
I hope this piece changes your perception of the word vet. Next time you see some nyama choma or fried chicken on your plate, you will probably think of the vet who vetted the meat before it got to your plate. We need to understand that food safety encompasses everything from the food they eat, to the animals that produce that food, to the practitioners that take care of those food-producing animals.