In the lively streets of Nigeria’s cities, where delicious street food is a daily delight, a wide variety of food can be bought and consumed instantly. From the sizzling suya snack in Abuja to the aromatic jollof rice in Lagos, street food has become an integral part of Nigerian life.
However, beneath these enticing flavours lies a critical question of public safety and health regulation. There is growing concern about the chemical and microbiological safety of these foods, as there seems not to be any oversight or control in their production and marketing.
Over 70% of urban dwellers in Africa rely on street vendors. However, inadequate government regulation in developing nations, such as Nigeria, raises concerns about food safety and public health. Foodborne diseases have been linked with contaminated street foods. Common pathogens include E. coli and Salmonella, which has potential to cause foodborne illnesses such as gastroenteritis, haemorrhagic colitis or bloody diarrhoea and life-threatening conditions such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome. Heavy metal contamination is another risk.
Research has explored the role of street-vended foods in meeting socio-economic challenges, particularly in developing nations. Other studies have focused on the microbiological safety of street foods (for example, soy wara, a Nigerian curdled soy milk product), and the risk factors in street food practices.
Our own study analysed gaps in the safety and regulation of street foods in Nigeria. We highlighted gaps in infrastructure, training and vendor awareness, and made recommendations to solve the problems we identified.
Why street food can be unsafe
The primary concern is hygiene and food handling practices. Inadequate access to clean water, inappropriate waste disposal, temperature abuse and lack of food safety knowledge are common challenges seen among street food vendors.
These conditions can lead to food-borne illnesses, which can be prevented but continue to be a public health issue. The WHO estimates that each year, there are more than 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses, resulting in over 420,000 deaths, with the greatest burden of these (more than 30%) occuring in children less than 5 years of age.
In Nigeria, there have been pockets of foodborne disease outbreaks over the years which have claimed lives. The Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative estimates that 173 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur in Nigeria, resulting in 33,000 deaths annually.
Generally, street food preparation in Nigeria mirrors traditional approaches to food preparation at home. However, a study in Asaba, Delta State Nigeria highlights that because of the scale and quantity of foods prepared, more than 50% of food processors do not wash raw foods prior to preparation and another 40% of the food processors do not wash their hands. Neither do they practise personal hygiene during the handling of foods. Similarly, many street food vendors operate in less than perfect environments for food processing: many street food vendor stands have flies, rodents and open waste bins which are risk factors for the contamination of foods.
The lack of a clean and sanitary environment for food processing has been identified as among the key factors that contribute to the contamination of street foods by microorganisms.
Checking unsafe practices
A multifaceted approach to these issues must be adopted.
- Training: First, basic food safety training for vendors is crucial. This training should cover essential hygiene practices, safe food handling and storage procedures. It can be done through local health departments and community organisations. This recommendation draws on established principles of hygiene and safe food handling. Continuous training on food safety has proved effective in promoting food safety.
- Enforcement: The government should develop and enforce food safety regulations specific to street vendors. This requires a balance between ensuring public health and not stifling the livelihoods of the vendors. Subsidising the cost of necessary equipment like portable sinks or refrigeration units could be a part of this initiative. Supplying vendors with hygienic materials has proved to be valuable for preserving and enhancing food safety in low- and middle-income nations.
- Inspection: Regular inspections should be conducted to ensure compliance with these regulations. These should not be punitive but rather supportive, helping vendors to meet the required standards. A food hygiene rating scheme should be put in place to identify vendors complying with food safety standards as this could motivate them to improve their sanitary conditions.
- Awareness: Public awareness also plays a vital role. Consumers should be educated about the importance of food safety and how to identify vendors who adhere to hygiene standards. Consumer awareness can create a demand for safer practices, encouraging vendors to comply with regulations.
- Research and development: Finally, research and collaboration with food scientists and public health experts can lead to innovative solutions that are tailored to the Nigerian context. For instance, exploring low-cost preservation techniques or developing mobile apps for health inspection ratings could revolutionise the way street food is regulated.
Regulations will save lives and livelihoods
Regulating street food in Nigeria is not just about preventing disease; it is about preserving a way of life in a safe and sustainable manner. At the heart of this issue are the vendors and consumers, whose lives and well-being are interconnected with the very essence of street food culture.
Helen Onyeaka, Associate Professor, University of Birmingham