Food Safety and Food Security are among the major areas of concern to any country in terms of promoting public health and economic development. The socio-economic burden presented by the consumption of unwholesome food is far reaching and the effect becomes extremely heightened if the food is supplied to very large numbers of people. Regulatory systems that are relaxed and cannot guarantee the safety of a food supply system puts consumers at risk. Food safety concerns across the entire food supply chain; from farm to fork, should therefore be of a paramount concern to any country.
Food goes through several stages of processing and handling before it finally gets to the consumer. During these stages, there are several factors that can affect the safety and quality of the food. The food could be contaminated on the farm, during transportation or during processing/preparation. Milling/grinding is a common food processing step associated with most food operations.
In Ghana, commercial mills play significant role in the food processing chain. Common food products that have a milling step include infant weaning cereals, kenkey, porridges, fruit juices, bread, doughnuts, pepper sauces (shito), stews and soups. These days some individuals have started operating commercial fufu pounding businesses which is a form of milling operation. Some of these foods are highly patronized by the general public. Any contamination of these foods therefore presents serious health problems to the consuming public, especially vulnerable groups like infants, pregnant women and the elderly.
Data obtained from the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) revealed that nearly 70% of small -to- medium scale food processing facilities in Ghana patronize the services of commercial mills as part of their food processing steps. The role of these commercial mills as far as food safety is concerned therefore cannot be over emphasized.
There have been some hygiene concerns raised by the public and some media houses about the operations of commercial mills in the country. Virtually no one individual owns or operates a private mill, exclusively for their own use. Every home in Ghana and a large number of food processors use the services of these commercial mills. Public health concerns raised with the operations of these commercial mills are not limited to poor hygiene conditions at the mills but also the fact that operators have little or no knowledge in food safety practices.
An appreciation of the operations of commercial mills and their challenges will therefore be critical in the formulation of policies to promote food safety systems applicable in the sector to achieve public health goals.
A baseline study was conducted by the authors of this report to assess the conditions under which these mills operate in relation to food safety and hygiene and how they are monitored.
The scope of the study was limited to Cleanliness of the immediate surroundings of the mills, Appropriateness of the Structure and Fabrication, Facility Sanitation, Control Systems in the milling operations, Pest Management, Equipment Maintenance, Waste Management, Personal Hygiene standards and any other auxiliary uses of the facility.
The main objective of the study was to establish the hygienic status of commercial mills and their contribution to food safety in order to allow for dialogue and formulation of national policies for their regulation.
Commercial mills in selected communities and markets in the Greater Accra Region were assessed from June to July, 2014. A total of One hundred (100) facilities were sampled randomly for the study from four (4) different settings; eleven (11) urban communities, eight (8) urban markets, four (4) rural communities and two (2) rural markets.
A checklist on basic Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) requirements covering the scope as indicated above was used for the study.
Over 70% of the facilities assessed failed in all the scope of the GMP requirements stated above; the immediate surroundings and the structures do not support proper food handling practices, poor sanitation, inadequate controls in the milling operations to prevent, eliminate or reduce potential food safety hazards, the facilities were heavily infested with pests (house flies, cockroaches and rodents), no structured equipment maintenance regime, waste handling practices improperly coordinated and absence or inadequate personnel standards (poor personal hygiene practices).
The mill attendants have no or poor knowledge about food hygiene and practices that promote it or contribute to food contamination.
Some of the facilities visited also doubled as living quarters for the operators.
Receptacles for water storage are also poorly handled. Over 65% operators however, have access to pipeborne water. The rest use well water or water supplied by tankers and received into receptacles.
With regard to operational permits some of the facilities presented their valid operational licenses while others did indicate that the local government has not issued any such permits to allow them to operate but rather pay daily tolls to the Assemblies.
Unhygienic handling of milled products (Kenkey for Ice-Kenkey production)
The observations made indicate a rather disturbing conditions under which commercial milling operations are carried out in the country. These facilities could potentially contribute to food contamination risk especially, aflatoxin , microbial and metal contamination.
Monitoring of the operations of these facilities are virtually absent. Visits to the sites by local government operatives are more for revenue reasons than hygiene.
Commercial mills located in the communities were found to be relatively cleaner and operators hygiene sensitive. Hygienic status of operatives in the market settings as well as the infrastructure on the other hand fall far below what could adequately promote food safety.
These findings were limited to the areas surveyed. A nationwide survey would provide a clearer picture of the state of the industry. This will allow for a more accurate assessment of the industry to help in a proper formulation of guidelines and technical support needed to address the concerns observed.
The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD) and its subsidiaries, the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI), the Food and Drugs Authority and other stakeholders must begin to work towards streamlining the operations of commercial mills in view of the pivotal role they play in our food processing chain.
Authors: Kofi Essel, Gloria Asum-Kwarteng and Veronica Tseko