Power outages are increasingly exposing consumers to food poisoning as fresh foods get bad in refrigerators in major supermarkets and homes, The Nation has established.
This week, The Nation spoke to some medical doctors who confirmed that the current electricity blackouts may be causing bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites to be multiplying in domestic and commercial refrigerators stocking meat, fish and even dairy products.
The doctors confirmed that food poisoning may be a probable result after food-stuffed refrigerators are forced to lose power for at least five hours at a time
The doctors point out that refrigerated meat, meat products and other fresh foods is forced to thaw even where power is lost for as few as five or so hours.
They add that even if such food later begins the refrigeration process all over—after the power comes back on—the electricity’s on-off pattern gives room for the bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and toxins to form and multiply.
Executive director of Baylor College of Medicine—Children’s Foundation Malawi (BCM–CFM), Dr. Peter Kazembe said dangerous organisms, referred to as being psychrotrophic, grow slowly under normal room temperature but will grow more rapidly when exposed to cold temperatures that are associated with refrigeration.
He said: “The bacteria will thrive and when eaten [through foods]. It will cause illness manifested variously as diarrhoea, vomiting, fever chills and even serious blood stream infections.
“Common organisms that can lead to this phenomenon are Listeria Monocytogenes, Yersinia and some fungi [moulds]. This same phenomenon will occur where food is thawed and then refrozen. This is why this practice is discouraged.”
This means, in all fairness, that major shops and homes which refrigerate the vulnerable fresh food throughout, religiously using back-up generators during the blackout spells, are unlikely to offer food that may cause health problems.
In about six months, when the blackouts started to be monotonous irritations, many butchery owners have closed shop in townships because they cannot afford buying generators.
Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito said his organisation has received many cases of food poisoning, with some demanding compensation for butchery and shop owners for selling them stale food.
“With the current prolonged blackouts, or electricity outages, it is unhealthy and hazardous to eat fresh foods such as meat and perishables that have been stored for a long time without electricity.
“Such frozen food turns into poison if the blackouts have exceeded four hours and, indeed, people may suffer from different ailments after consuming such foods,” he said.
Kapito advised that people should choose well, if they are to avoid buying stale food like fish, meat and chickens on offer in shops and butcheries that do not have power back-up generators.
He added that even in their own domestic refrigerators, people should avoid stocking up any of the perishable food while the long blackouts continue, and where generators are not in use to ensure continuous refrigeration of the food.
Ministry of Health director of preventive services Dr. Storn Kabuluzi said his ministry, through district health offices, continues to inspect food premises to ascertain the fitness of the food on offer.
He said while food poisoning generally makes life uncomfortable for the affected individuals, key symptoms like nausea and vomiting normally go away after the individuals seek treatment, drink replacement liquids and rest enough.
Said Kabuluzi: “Many deaths occur when there is an outbreak in a certain area and mainly when vulnerable people like children or very old people are exposed to extreme dehydration for a long period.”
Commenting generally on the food poisoning threat, he stated: “It is clear that laws of Malawi, in sections 106 -112, prohibit the sale of foods that are not fit for human consumption. It would be unlawful for any shop keeper or person to sell foods that are adulterated or not fit for human consumption.”
Kabuluzi said persistent power failure causes temperature variations which may affect food-keeping quality in refrigerators needing constant cold temperatures.