Last week’s crackdown on butchers and fishmongers accused of dousing their meats in inorganic salts and formalin, a preservative for dead bodies, to expand the meat’s shelf life, has resurrected old questions about poor regulatory controls of farm produce.
Concerns that some farmers and middlemen are selling beef, poultry products and vegetables that are contaminated with antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides have been reawakened.
More than 10 people have been arrested by Kampala Capital City Authority health teams working with officials from the Uganda National Bureau of Standards.
However, as authorities target butcheries and fish stalls, other chemicals which could be harmful to human health are being applied to preserve tomatoes, vegetables, beans and groundnuts in markets.
On Monday, The Observer walked through Nakasero and Wandegeya markets, talking to traders and sellers of cooked food. Many admitted to adding chemicals to perishable foodstuffs to “extend their shelf life”.
Partly because of the ongoing clamp-down, most traders requested not to be named so they could speak freely. Some of them said they get around the high cost of cooking gas, other fuels and electricity by adding pellets of panadol in beans, chicken and cow hooves, which makes these foods cook faster.
“It is very normal here because when you use it [panadol], those beans can get ready very fast. We do it to save charcoal,” one restaurant owner in Wandegeya market said, adding that they think it is not dangerous since panadol is swallowed by people to kill pain.
Dr Yasin Ssebuko, working with Joy Medical Centre in Bweyogerere, told The Observer on Monday that panadol is preferred because it has an element called acetaminophen, which when used softens the testa of a bean seed and makes it easy to boil.
“[But] when it is boiled at those high temperatures, it changes the normal functioning of the body cells, which could lead to cancer,” Ssebuko said.
Other unscrupulous vendors inject steroids into both live animals and packed meat to increase their mass and weight. Steroids are organic compounds used among other things to build muscle.
Ssebuko said steroids can weaken the immune system if consumed in meat and can also cause obesity.
“When they weaken the immunity, it gives chance for opportunistic infections to attack a person and there will be little defence in the body. These diseases can be candida, pneumonia, diarrhoea and many others,” he said.
An article published in the US newspaper, Los Angeles Times on July 11, 2016 titled,‘Why antibiotic use on farms helps fuel antibiotic-resistant diseases’, warned that farm animals are a key player in the emergence of antibiotic resistance.
“Around the world, livestock producers feed antibiotics to cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals in a bid to prevent diseases and boost their growth. In the United States, for instance, some 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used on the farm. That’s 70% of all the antibiotics used in the USA each year,” according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, an NGO dedicated to improving public policy, informing the public and stimulating civic life.
“Experts believe this practice has hastened the emergence of antibiotic-resistant diseases…When farm animals poop, these drug-resistant bacteria wind up in soil and water. From there, they can spread to other animals, fuelling the cycle. The organisms can find their way into humans if people consume undercooked meat of infected animals, or eat produce grown in soil contaminated by their waste.”
To keep rats, cockroaches and weevils, away from shops and storage facilities, vendors in Uganda like to use rodenticides and ammonia sprinkled in sacks of beans, groundnuts and other cereals. These contain chemicals such as cholecalciferol, which when consumed by humans could cause a burning nose, throat and respiratory respiratory distress.
Jackline Nagawa, a resident of Ntinda who runs a restaurant business, said poor regulation will lead to loss of lives in the long run. She worries that the ongoing operations will yield nothing if they are not carried out regularly and countrywide.
“It is not just meat or fish; when you go to many markets to buy beans or groundnuts, you will discover that these people put chemicals in them to keep away the rats and weevils. They don’t care about people’s health because they know they can easily get away with it,” Nagawa said.
One tomato vendor in Nakasero market said if growers didn’t spray pesticides on tomatoes before transporting them to the market, most produce would be spoilt within days.
Florence Isabirye Muranga, a lecturer in the department of Food Science and Technology at Makerere University, told The Observer on Monday that vegetables should last be sprayed with chemicals at least two weeks before harvest. Harvested produce must also be washed to reduce the health hazards it can cause, Muranga said.
“The problem is that we have unqualified people doing these treatments. Meat or vegetables can remain good simply by packaging [and not by chemicals],” he said.
She said government should only allow packed meat or vegetables on the market.
“Slaughtering meat and delivering it packed to the consumers after maturing it is the only solution to weeding out these middlemen…,” she said.
There is, however, a less visible though equally potent hazard concerning meat sold at the butchery. Several cows are slaughtered while sick and with too much antibiotics in their blood.
“First of all, when you eat meat with antibiotics, it can mean that the animal didn’t cure and, therefore, you can also contract that disease. Then the too many antibiotics in your body can make it resistant to several drugs; you are treated but your body doesn’t respond to certain drugs,” Ssebuko said.
He added that if one’s body is free from disease and you take in meat with antibiotics, useful defensive cells in the body called normal flora will be killed, thus weakening your immunity.
“It also could affect other body organs such as the liver, kidney and the heart just like any other antibiotics,” he added.
Experts say that for an animal to be slaughtered, it should have last been injected with any drug about two weeks before but this window varies from drug to drug. On December 7, 2017, The Observer columnist Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo wrote that nsenene (grasshoppers) trappers were poisoning the insects to boost their catch.
“They use pesticides and other intoxicating substances which they smoke and spray up in the air at the nsenene. It has also been suspected that some use formalin to keep the nsenene from smelling,” he wrote.
One nsenene trader in Nakasero confirmed the truth in Ssentongo’s writing, saying she knows that “some chemical” is put in them before bundling the insects into sacks for sale.
Hussein Kiguli sells meat in the main market at Kireka in Kira municipality.He was one of six butchers interviewed who acknowledged using “some chemicals” to preserve meat and keep away flies.
“How could I know that these things are toxic when none of my customers has ever complained about any complication? I and my family, we eat this very meat I sell and I can tell you I have never fallen sick,” Kiguli said.
Like Kiguli, several butchers and dairy products dealers are not aware of the potential dangers and they don’t care to find out as long as they are making money.
But how dangerous is consumption of formalin and inorganic salts to human life?
Dr George Okello, a gastroenterologist with Kampala International hospital, told The Observer last week that the consumption of both chemicals will hurt the people in the long run.
“Formalin, for example, can’t be used in large quantities before you detect it because it smells and could harden the meat. So, I think these fellows will use small amounts that will not have an immediate effect on a person but if consumption is prolonged, then it gets really dangerous,” Okello said.
He said in the short run, one can experience burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing, nausea and skin irritation. Okello further said this could also depend on the body of the person because some people are more sensitive to exposure than others.
Although the short-term health effects of formalin exposure are well known, less is known about its potential long-term health effects. Medical experts said the chemical could cause cancer and damage to kidneys although this has never been proven scientifically.
According to the US National Cancer Institute, 1980 laboratory studies showed that exposure to formalin could cause nasal cancer in rats. This finding raised the question of whether formalin exposure could also cause cancer in humans.