A study of food handlers in Egypt has highlighted poor knowledge and non-compliance with food safety practices.

The food safety system of Egypt is undergoing transition with the recent creation of the National Food Safety Authority (NFSA).

A cross-sectional study was done from May 2016 to March 2017 on 994 participants working in four randomly selected districts in Sohag Governorate, in the south of Egypt with an estimated 4.9 million inhabitants. These areas were Sohag, Akhmim, Girga, and Tama.

More than 39 percent of respondents had good knowledge, 61.2 percent had positive attitudes and 56.3 percent reported good food safety practices.

The age range of participants was 16 to 55 years old; most were males (805), and 531 were rural residents. More than one third of respondents were cooks and 648 were assistants.

Knowledge of participants

More than one-third correctly answered questions about the role of eating raw or semi-cooked meat, raw unwashed vegetables, and covered leftover food kept for more than six hours at room temperature as increasing the risk of food poisoning.

Only 36 percent of participants correctly identified that healthy food handlers might carry foodborne pathogens. More than 50 percent of food handlers did not know that insects can transmit food pathogens and harmful bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature.

Just less than half considered safe food handling an essential part of their job; 426 people thought food safety training courses are necessary; 44 percent agreed that raw and cooked foods should be separated; and 334 did not agree that wiping vegetables or fruit makes them safe to eat.

Nearly one-third of participants did not think food handlers could be a source of foodborne outbreaks and did not agree thorough washing of vegetables and fruits is mandatory to prevent food poisoning.

Around half agreed that vegetables and raw meat should not be cut on the same cutting board, considered that long nails could be a source of pathogens; and that food handlers should have a medical examination biannually.

Less than one in five always wear gloves when touching cooked food and always washed their hands before food processing. Just over one in five stated they always separate raw meat from cooked food and a similar proportion; said they check the refrigerator temperature regularly.

Researchers said there was an urgent need to raise interest in food safety.

“Education and training programs should be implemented to improve food handlers’ attitude, knowledge and practices. Additionally, licensing and maintaining supervision should be mandated,” they added.

Earlier this year, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Germany reported 31 people had been sick with E. coli in 2019 after going to Egypt and five people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure associated with E. coli infection. Public Health England previously reported 18 people fell ill with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection and one person developed HUS after returning from Egypt this year.

Food safety in grain sector

Meanwhile, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized a workshop in July on risk-based approaches to ensure food safety in the grain sector.

In 2018, wheat imports were 12.5 million tons with 7.5 million tons going towards a subsidized product known as baladi bread.

“Egypt’s food safety decision-makers have a promising window of opportunity right now to reorganize their networks and means of operating, which would result in savings overall and a more attractive environment for international investment,” said Iride Ceccacci, principal of Agribusiness Advisory at EBRD.

EBRD and FAO conducted training and knowledge exchange on grain handling and inspection procedures. Handling grain inspection procedures to determine safety and quality of imports will be become the responsibility of the NFSA.

“We stand committed in working with all involved in food safety in Egypt to enhance our capacities by operating more efficiently across the supply chain, thereby ensuring food security in our country for our people,” said Dr. Hussein Mansour, chairman of the NFSA.

FAO and EBRD are also training food business operators and raising awareness around registration requirements and food traceability.

“Egypt is giving top priority to food safety issues by establishing the National Food Safety Authority. FAO has been working with our development partners on sanitary and phytosanitary measures, sustainable agriculture, and good hygienic practices. We also support NFSA in preparing the capacity development plan to enhance food safety,” said Hussein Gadain, FAO representative in Egypt.

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