Q. According to a recent news report, a Sharjah-based Indian student contracted food poisoning and died after having pani puri and sugarcane juice in Mumbai. How can these long time favourites be fatal? Are there some precautions that we can take while consuming these street foods? How can we know if a food item is unfit for consumption and will make us sick, and even lead to death?
A. The incident concerning the blossoming student was rather unfortunate, and one that needs to be analysed appropriately. Street foods are absolutely tempting, and serve as satiating economical meals or snacks luring people of all ages and strata to devour them unmindful of the surroundings in which they are served. Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, is an illness caused by eating contaminated food. Food can get contaminated by three groups of microorganisms – bacteria, viruses and parasites, with bacterial and parasitic contamination being the most common. Food borne illnesses are of two kinds – food infections and food intoxications. A food infection is caused by the ingestion of food containing live bacteria which grow and establish themselves in the human intestinal tract over a period of time (from a few hours to as long as 48 hours). A food intoxication is caused by ingesting food containing toxins (poisons) formed by bacteria which have grown on a food item; in this case, the bacteria is harmless, but they are capable of producing toxins which harm the body.
Infectious organisms or their toxins can contaminate food at any point of processing or production. Contamination can also occur at home if food is incorrectly handled or cooked. Food poisoning symptoms, which can start within hours of eating contaminated food, often include nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes fever. Signs and symptoms may start within hours after eating the contaminated food, or they may begin days or even weeks later. Sickness caused by food poisoning generally lasts from a few hours to several days. Most often, food poisoning is mild and resolves without treatment. But some people may need a more severe line of treatment. Dehydration, light headedness, and neurological symptoms such as blurred vision, muscle weakness and tingling in the arms are alarm bells that one should never ignore.
Episodes of food poisoning are often connected to raw foods since the high temperatures used in cooking are known to destroy most pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms. Sugarcane juice is consumed ‘raw’, leaving it open to bacterial contamination. E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus are the most common cause of sugarcane juice contamination, and indicate faecal contamination and contamination due to sneezing and coughing, respectively, of the product. This bacterial contamination of sugarcane juice may occur at different stages such as by contamination of sugarcane, the crushers, collecting vessels, ice added to the juice, hands of the personnel and the filter used for straining the juice. Further, sugarcane attracts flies that may contaminate the juice.
Pani puri is another street food that is consumed ‘raw’. The puris are cooked (fried) but exposed to environmental contamination, while the water used can be suspect (not boiled). In addition, vendors using their bare hands to dip the puris into the water container are another major source of contamination; and add to that, multiple vendors at a stall making pani puri translates to many different hands going in to that water jug and many more reasons for contamination! This may seem gross, but it is the harsh reality of street foods.
Health education of the vendors and implementation of standard hygienic protocols can help reduce contamination of street foods. Surveying the vendors and choosing a cart where the vendor practices cleanliness and hygiene by wearing gloves and utilizing clean water and vessels is of utmost importance to avoid episodes of food poisoning. Alternately, prepare your favourite street food at home!!! The government too has a huge responsibility in ensuring the safety of street foods – regular health checks of vendors, periodic inspections, consistent education and re-education are some of the means by which the authorities can ensure a safer eating experience for the public. It is often said that the Indian digestive tract can withstand the onslaught of a multitude of organisms; however, strengthening your immunity and digestive health by the consumption of fermented foods (curds, yoghurt, buttermilk) and vitamin C-rich foods are means of maybe ensuring a healthier you. Enjoy the pleasures of street foods but do so with caution.
SHERYL AFONSO e D’SOUZA
CLINICAL NUTRITIONIST (NORBERT’S FITNESS STUDIO) & ASST. PROFESSOR (POST GRADUATE DEGREE STUDIES, CARMEL COLLEGE)